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Back Mental-Health Support, Don’t Arm Teachers, School-Safety Panel Told

By Alyson Klein — June 06, 2018 12 min read
Abbey Clements
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Don’t arm teachers. Monitor students on social media. Give schools more mental health resources. Hire more school resource officers—or not. Keep Obama-era guidance aimed curbing discipline disparities between minority students and their peers. Ban assault weapons.

These and dozens of other proposals for preventing the next school shooting poured out Wednesday at a day-long listening session held here by the Federal School Safety Commission, which was set up by President Donald Trump to explore potential solutions in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February.

Much of the advice did not appear to be in line with the policy preferences of the administration. Trump has called for arming certain teachers, and even directing federal resources to give bonuses to school staff willing to carry concealed weapons. His Education Department is giving serious consideration to scrapping Obama-era guidance that pushed school officials to ensure that their discipline policies don’t have a disparate impact on students from certain racial and ethnic groups. Speaker after speaker urged against both moves.

It’s unclear what the panel, which met at the U.S. Department of Education, will make of the recommendations. The commission’s chairwoman, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, wasn’t in the room to take in these suggestions. She was on a trip to Switzerland, part of an on-site examination of career and technical education and school choice in three European countries.

None of the other cabinet secretaries who are part of the commission, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, attended either. But each sent a representative.

Advocates have criticized the panel for not including educator voices, and for moving too slowly, and with too little transparency.

Just a day before the listening session, DeVos said in testifying before Congress that the commission would not be exploring the role of guns in school violence. That’s despite a prior White House statement that the commission’s work will include examining age restrictions on certain firearms purchases.

But guns were the central topic for many of those who spoke during the six hours of public statements.

Michael Yin, a newly minted graduate of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and one of the dozens of people who showed up at department headquarters for the event, expressed disappointment that combating gun violence wouldn’t be part of the commission’s work.

“There’s so much we can change that doesn’t even begin to infringe on the Second Amendment,” he said. “We need to do a much, much better job of making sure guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong people.”

But Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, who presided over the listening session, clarified that the panel will not be looking at “confiscating” existing weapons. He said the commission will explore “narrow” issues related to gun safety, including looking at age limits for purchasing certain firearms, and issues related to gun ownership and mental health.

Here’s a quick sampling of the speakers and what they said:

Alessia Modjarrad, a student in Montgomery County, said she and other student activists back gun control measures. Among those are universal background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines. They also have sought mental health-care reform, she said.

“Why are we allowing our government to be so strongly influenced by NRA-backed lobbyists at the expense of American lives?” she asked. “Simply put, the victims of the Santa Fe High School shooting were not killed by doors, trench coats, or a lack of school resource officers. Neither were any of the other victims of the mass shootings we have somehow grown to expect in this country we are supposedly so proud of. No other country has the same proliferation and culture of guns as the United States of America. ... To say that guns and shootings are not linked is frankly preposterous. Every other country has doors, video games, mental illness, and psychoactive medications, but only the U.S. has a gun violence epidemic within our schools.”

Pamela Champion, a mother and co-chairman of the Champion Foundation, talked about the death of her son, Robert. He died after being violently hazed at Florida A&M University in 2011. She said she doesn’t think arming school staff, a solution proposed by the president, is the answer.

“For all schools and communities, police presence may not, does not, equal safety,” she said. “Teachers with guns do not equate to safety. ... Children need to feel emotionally and socially safe” through things like improved school climate and improved relationships with staff.”

Abbey Clements, a 4th grade teacher at the Newtown Public Schools in Connecticut, recounted the day in 2012 that 26 students and teachers were killed at an elementary school there. A gun wouldn’t have helped, she said.

“You must understand how fast shootings happen and how chaotic and confusing it is. There’s no way to determine who and where the gunfire is coming from,” she said. “Say I had a gun. Would I have left my terrified children? Never. Would I have been able to find, approach, and fire at him, and not somebody else, without perhaps, a child getting in the way? It’s completely unrealistic to think that an educator ... would have been able to navigate all of this in such a short period of time and take down the gunman without interfering with law enforcement’s response, or harming or killing other educators, or God forbid, children. ... This is not the movies. This is school.”

Mary Welander, a Connecticut ambassador for the Sandy Hook Promise Organization, an advocacy organization set up in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, spoke in favor of increased mental health supports.

“Schools across the country are struggling without the school counselors and school psychologists they need,” she said. Schools, she said, need to be proactive in identifying students who feel isolated and angry, and “not try to mitigate the damage once it has already started.”

Marlyn Tillman, the executive director of Gwinnett STOP, an advocacy group in Georgia, noted that mass shootings have tended to occur in majority-white communities. But she said the proposed solutions, including more police in schools can have an adverse effect on students who are racial minorities.

“While shootings at schools are primarily committed by white students in white schools, schools with a large black and brown population get the brunt of school police and buildings that resemble and function like prisons,” she said. “There is no evidence that police make schools safer.” She called instead for a “holistic” approach to improving school climate, including utilizing “peacekeepers” instead of police.

Jamison Coppola, a legislative director for the American Association of Christian Schools, said, there’s a “spiritual dimension” to the school-safety discussion.

“School safety will be best achieved in an environment that teaches virtue and expects noble character,” he said. “We must return the idea that these values are worth pursuing in our schools and classrooms. We must have a common standard that is actively taught in our schools of what virtue is. We must encourage students and all citizens to pursue these virtues in their actions.”

He suggested the commission look to the private school community, which has put in place things like digital surveillance and restricted building access, and has experimented with “the arming of responsible members of the school community.”

Amina Henderson-Redwan, a youth organizer with the Voices of Youth Education Committee in Chicago, said she’s lost friends to gun violence. She has struggled with mental illness and police haven’t always been helpful.

“At the age of 9, I watched my father die. ... I was arrested when I had an anxiety attack. I tried to walk away from a peace circle and a security guard pushed my head into a chalkboard,” said Henderson-Redwan. Her voice broke as she described her personal battles with bipolar disorder and depression.

She also talked about her work in championing pending legislation in Illinois that would set up a competitive-grant program for school districts to expand mental health services, conflict resolution training, and more.

“This federal commission on school safety needs to listen to communities that it’s supposed to represent, communities like mine, and this is what’s needed,” she said.

Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said district leaders are most interested in expanding mental health services, but not in changes to the discipline guidance.

In a survey, AASA shared the commission’s areas of study with superintendents and asked them to rank them in order of relevance. The top areas were opportunities to improve access to mental health treatment, best practices for school-based threat assessment and violence prevention strategies, and best practices for campus security. The item school leaders are least interested in having the commission address? Repeal of the Obama administration’s 2014 discipline guidance, which sought to ensure that minority students and students in special education aren’t disciplined more often or more harshly than their peers.

Lindsay Jones, of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, urged the commission not to get rid of that Obama administration guidance.

“Students with disabilities, especially students with disabilities of color, face disparate treatment in our nation’s public schools,” she said, citing statistics that show black students in special education are far more likely to be suspended than their white peers in special education. “Behavior does not explain these disparate rates of discipline that they face. Bias does.” She said the guidance is an important tool for combatting this and must be maintained. She was heartened, she said, to hear from Ellerson that superintendents don’t place a premium on getting rid of it.

Donna Colombo, the president-elect of the Virginia PTA, called for gun restrictions and more resources to help schools hire counselors and beef-up safety features.

“Guns have no place in schools. Access to firearms is a problem. It is far too easy for untrained and unlicensed citizens to access firearms. Budgets are stretched so tightly that many of our school divisions are not able to install even the most-basic security systems. We do not need to make fortresses out of our schools. We need to guarantee that every school is able to fund and install state-of-the-art security at each entrance and exit or even just locks on every door. ... We do not need to add more officers. We need to add more guidance counselors.”

John Kelly, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, noted that there aren’t nearly enough mental health professionals in schools.

“Unfortunately the country is facing a critical shortage of school-based mental-health professionals. ... This is bad for kids, their teachers, and their families,” he said. He held up a promising example in Boston Public Schools, which he said has started up a partnership the local children’s hospital to bolster mental health services.

Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ youth, noted that bullying incidence declined from 2007 to 2015, according to federal data, but seems to be back on the rise.

A study of the experiences of teachers released last fall by the University of California at Los Angles, found that “a dramatic increase in student anxiety, stress, and incivility in 2017. Students reported a persuasive sense of fear that was most acute for black and Latino, Muslim, disabled, and LGBTQ youth.” She said that federal actions, including the withdrawal of Obama-era guidance stating that transgender youth can use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, immigration enforcement, and “public statements calling this department’s civil rights commitment into question” have contributed to that sense of insecurity.

Zachary Scott, Sr. advocacy manager of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said arming teachers would, ironically, make schools less safe.

“We must abandon the notion of arming teachers, principals, and other school personnel, eliminating gun-free school zones, and other proposals championed by the gun lobby borne of a belief that putting more guns in schools will make kids safer,” he said. “Such proposals stem from a desperate and well-intentioned need to do something—anything—to make parents and community members believe schools are safer, but the effect would be the opposite. Schools would be more susceptible to accidents and violence rather than safer from it. No credible evidence suggests that more guns in schools equals more safety. In fact, the growing number of accidental shootings and mishaps with guns in schools, even in the hands of trained professionals, tell us exactly the opposite.”

Was there anyone left out of the listening session?

Some groups felt they were shut out at the event, including the Brady Campaign, a gun violence prevention organization. The group tried to register online as soon as the session was announced, said Max Samis, a spokesman, but was unable to get a speaking slot.

Brady opted instead to stage a protest outside of the department’s headquarters. Protestors, including one dressed as a bear, chanted “Betsy, Betsy NRA hack. Your plan for school safety is totally wack.”

No one was barred from participating, said Elizabeth Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman. “The registration link was open to any and everyone who wished to speak today on a first-come, first-served basis,” Hill said. She said there would be additional opportunities for the education community to share ideas and views with the commission.

Still, Tillman, of the Gwinnett STOP advocacy group, said she didn’t think that the commission gave educators, parents, and interested community members who might want to participate in the session enough of a heads up, given that the listening session was held with less than a week’s notice.

What the commission has been up to so far: The commission has had just two official meetings since its inception in early March.

Last week, the commission visited a Maryland elementary school to explore positive behavioral supports and interventions, or PBIS, a widely-used technique for improving school climate and student behavior. DeVos also separately held a listening session, featuring survivors of school shootings and the family members of victims.

Zais said the commission will plan to hold at least four more meetings over the coming months. The panel is expected to issue its recommendations by the end of the year.

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