School Climate & Safety

What the DeVos-Led School Safety Commission Did This Summer

By Evie Blad & Alyson Klein — August 16, 2018 13 min read
From left, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, arrive to begin their meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Aug. 16 in Washington.
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It’s been a busy summer for the Federal School Safety Commission, set up by President Donald Trump in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. Headed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the commission is charged with coming up with recommendations by the end of this year on how to improve school safety and prevent future incidents of mass violence.

In hearings and public comment sessions throughout the summer—some on the road and some in Washington—the commission has heard from a range of experts, educators, and the general public on issues including on the wisdom and value of arming school staff members, the importance of student mental health services, how to preserve student privacy rights while sharing information that may help identify risks of violence, and the roots of that violence.

But the panel has drawn criticism for steering clear of the politically explosive topic of gun control, both in its witness lineup and in the thrust of the conversation so far.

Here are highlights of some of the safety commission’s most-recent hearings:

Balancing ‘Hardened Schools,’ Broader Security Approaches

While many school safety conversations since the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., have focused on “hardening schools” with physical security measures, keeping students safe requires a broader, multifaceted approach, several panelists told a federal school safety commission meeting Aug. 16.

Several panelists, who spoke on school policing, drills and protocols, building design, and threat assessment, also pushed for more centralized federal efforts to advance best practices and track what’s happening in schools around the country.

The panel’s latest meeting, held in Washington and coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, was organized around the theme: “Creating a Citadel of Learning: New Tools to Secure our Schools, Inside and Out.”

While the image of a citadel or a fortress is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s calls to arm school staff and adopt more aggressive physical security measures, it clashes with the recommendations made by architects, educational leaders, and school safety consultants, who say such extensive equipment can make schools feel more like prisons than places of learning.

It’s possible to create safe schools that are still welcoming to students and conducive to learning and child development, architect Jay Brotman told the commission. He designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which replaced a building that was demolished after 26 people where killed in a 2012 school shooting there.

“The primary goal is to provide an inspiring, healthy environment that promotes learning,” Brotmon told the commission. “Security features, while vital and necessary, should be as invisible as possible and incorporated into the school’s design. Failing to do so puts children’s education, emotional development and pro-social behavior at risk.”

Max Schachter, who lost his son, Alex, in the Parkland shooting, agreed that controlling building entrances is important. But he also pushed for more robust, tech-heavy security measures. The Parkland gunman was able to kill 17 people without entering a single classroom by shooting through windows in classroom doors, that wouldn’t have been possible if the doors had been equipped with ballistic glass, he said, his voice cracking.

“It is time to protect our schools like we protect our airports and our federal buildings,” Schachter said.

Two other speakers told the commission their work was rooted in practices that were developed and advanced after past school shootings, noting that previous state and federal efforts had already had an effect on schools.

Donna P. Michaelis, the manager of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, told how her state became the first in the country to mandate threat assessment practices in all schools, modeling the K-12 program off of measures put in place on the higher education level after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

Susan Payne, the founder of Safe2Tell, told the commission of a Secret Service report that was published after Columbine and has remained foundational to many threat assessment efforts. The agency’s Threat Assessment Center analyzed 37 targeted school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, and it concluded that attackers in 31 of them events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand.

In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the agency found. In most cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers.

“We have to change the culture and the climate into one that is about caring and seeking help when people need it,” she said, noting that the biggest category of Safe2Tell reports is concerns about suicide.

–Evie Blad

Deep Divisions on Equipping Educators With Weapons

President Donald Trump has made it clear that he thinks that arming trained school staff—a solution pushed by the National Rifle Association—could help prevent the next school shooting.

But educators, students, and community members who showed up to a federal school safety commission meeting Aug. 7, in ruby-red Wyoming, a state that allows its districts to arm certain school staff members, were deeply divided on the idea, according to a live-stream of the event.

“Asking school personnel to do the job of law enforcement and military personnel is nothing short of asking your plumber to cut your hair. It’s just not the job you’d want them to do,” said Brian Cox, the principal of Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, where the event was held. He said he’d much rather see resources directed to mental health than to arming educators.

Sidney Ludwig, a teacher with nearby Laramie County schools, was even more direct. “I never signed up to teach in a bunker,” Ludwig said. “If we make our schools a bunker, they become a target.”

Several students also expressed deep concern about the idea of arming school staff.

“I urge the commission to consider guns a threat to school safety ... including guns in the hands of teachers,” said Vera Berger, a high school student from New Mexico and a youth core member of the Southwest Organizing Project, a student advocacy organization.

But Bill Tallen, the executive vice president of Distributed Security, Inc., which helps train school staff to carry weapons, had a different take.

“When shooting starts, the only way to mitigate the consequences, to protect innocent lives, is to have armed adults at the school able to swiftly engage and stop the shooter before police arrive and to provide life-saving, immediate medical care to the injured,” Tallen said.

Speakers also discussed the staffing challenges rural schools can face in recruiting the mental health and school safety personnel they need..

“It is incredibly difficult to find school psychologists who are willing to come to Wyoming to work,” said Stacey Kern, the director of special services for the Carbon County District 1. And she said that Wyoming schools also “can’t fill positions for school resource officers.”

–Alyson Klein

Rural Educators Make Case for Arming School Staff

Arming teachers and school staff as a school safety measure is sometimes the best option for rural schools far from first responders, state and school officials told the safety commission at a recent session in Pearcy, Ark.

“Because of where we’re located, the last two sheriffs here in Garland County told me we could expect 20 to 30 minutes wait time if an active shooter situation happened on campus before an officer could be here,” Lake Hamilton, Ark., schools Superintendent Steve Anderson, who carries a gun at school, told the commission at the Aug. 1 hearing. “We’re not willing to take that chance. We need someone to protect our kids.”

In Lake Hamilton, armed staff include a few school resource officers, security guards, administrators, and a small number of noninstructional staff who have access to firearms that are double-locked in secured locations along with vests, radios, and other gear, said the superintendent said.

Cutter Morning Star district Superintendent Nancy Anderson told the panel of a time she heard three gunshots on an elementary playground. Armed, she rushed to respond as the gunman ran away.

“I was never so happy, and never so relieved, and never so empowered that I knew I had a gun and I could protect our children,” she said.

The meeting, which was led by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of four cabinet members on the panel, heard testimony from local supporters of armed school staff, but it did not hear from any of the groups who have opposed such proposals.

But Jay Barth, the chair of the state’s board of education did tell the commission that armed school staff should never include teachers.

“To be an effective classroom teacher, it requires 100 percent of one’s attention,” Barth said. “I think that to alter one’s mindset in a way that is problematic.”

Barth also challenged the panel to take a broader view of school safety, considering issues like bullying and school climate in addition to rare worst-case scenarios like shootings.

“It is not a panacea,” Barth said of arming staff.

–Evie Blad

Can Privacy Rules Clash With School-Safety Priorities?

Educators’ fear of overstepping federal student privacy laws can make it tougher for law enforcement and schools to share information that could prevent a potential school shooting, advocates told the safety commission at a July 26 hearing in Washington.

Clarence Cox III, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told the commission that fear of overstepping privacy laws “is one of the greatest hindrances facing intelligence gathering.” And Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association, argued that local districts would benefit from being able to use their discretion in deciding when to share information. “Local educators ... know the school climate, community concerns, the history of student interactions, and their needs,” he said. “They are in a unique position to share information when necessary to maintain a safe school environment.”

The panel has heard in the past from student privacy rights experts, but none spoke at the hearing.

The session was one of the rare meetings that involved all four members of the commission: DeVos; Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services; Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security; and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general.

Sessions seemed sympathetic to the idea that the feds could tweak—or at least clarify—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—so that educators and law enforcement don’t have to worry about collaborating to head off a possible violent incident.

The commission also is charged with considering whether to scrap, keep, or tweak Obama-era guidance putting schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group.

Judy Kidd, the president of the North Carolina Classroom Teachers Association, a political organization for educators meant to provide a counterbalance to the teachers’ unions, said she was all for ditching the guidance. “The schools can be the repository of some student criminals,” she said.

–Alyson Klein

Mental Health Services Seen as Crucial to Prevention Efforts

Trauma-informed care, which focuses on sensitivity to students’ experiences, and state support for mental health have paid off big in Wisconsin, state and local officials told members of the Federal School Safety Commission at a field hearing in Adams, Wis.

The Badger State’s system of supports for mental health took center stage at the July 24 hearing, which included a class tour and roundtable discussion at Adams-Friendship Middle School.

During a roughly hour-long round table, there was virtually no discussion of school shooters, or shootings. Instead Wisconsin state and district representatives talked about the need to collaborate among agencies and work with parents to get students the mental health supports they need.

The state has a “school mental health framework,” which helps about 100 districts address mental health. The state works to train educators to offer a range of mental health services—from early identification to deep, sustained help. It also helps local communities partner with youth-service agencies, behavioral health providers, and others. It also provides resources for schools to help students navigate difficult transition points, get over the stigma that seeking mental health services can carry, and more.

The program seems to be having an impact at the local level, said Crystal Holmes, the student support grant coordinator for Adams Friendship Area Schools. While a number of students told the district anonymously that they had considered suicide, there have been no suicides since the program—Project AWARE—came into existence. “When it comes to mental illness, our kids are further along than adults right now,” she said. “They will reach out and ask for help.”

One focus of Adams’ approach: training all sorts of school staff—even cafeteria workers—on “mental health first aid” to recognize potential trouble signs in individual students.

“Mental health first aid is much like medical first aid,” said Sam Wollin, the sheriff of Adam’s County. “When someone has a cut we apply pressure to the wound until we can provide further medical attention. With youth mental health first aid, we’re applying pressure to the emotional wounds until we can connect the youth with appropriate resources that within the community.”

–Alyson Klein

Experts Explore, Debate the Causes of School Violence

One-by-one, experts speaking to a federal school safety commission addressed factors commonly blamed for school shootings: bullying, mental health issues, violent video games, and media coverage.

“The fact is people never commit serious acts of violence, such as school shootings, because of one factor in their lives,” said L. Rowell Huesmann, the director of the Aggression Research Program at the University of Michigan, who spoke at the June 21 session in Washington.

People act violently because exposure to violence in their families and in their communities create scripts in their brains that violence or aggression is a solution to problems, Huesmann told the commission. “We know a lot about what increases the risk that a person will behave violently, but knowing what increases the risk is a long way from complete prevention,” he said.

The best predictor of violence is past violent behavior, Huesmann said. And students are more likely to commit violence with weapons if they’ve been exposed to violence with weapons, he said, pointing to youths’ access to guns as a factor.

Is fictional violence in entertainment like video games and movies as problematic as exposure to violence in real life?

“This pool of research has been generally inconsistent,” said, Christopher Ferguson, associate psychology professor at Stetson University, adding that many studies that have purported to find a link between video games and violence can’t be replicated, which calls into question the validity of their results.

But coverage of school shootings may have a contagion effect, sparking increased threats and acts of violence if it is not handled carefully, said Jennifer B. Johnston, assistant professor of psychology at Western New Mexico University.

“For some reason, I think they see fame as a remedy to the suffering and their suicidal state of mind,” Johnston said, noting that the gunman at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando checked his social media feeds in the middle of the shooting to see if his name was circulating.

Ben Fernandez, chair of the National Association of School Psychologists School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, also said media coverage “can make these events feel closer to home and much more personal” and “perpetuate the belief that schools are dangerous places.” But he also said that “while irresponsible reporting [on school shootings] can cause harm, responsible reporting can help communities heal.”

And Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University, cautioned that while the commission was specifically tasked with exploring cyberbullying, students who are bullied online are typically bullied in person as well. Researchers need more funding to evaluate anti-bullying programs and disseminate proven strategies to schools, Hinduja said.

–Evie Blad

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as School-Safety Panel Hears Sharply Divergent Messages


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