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Columbine Serves as Catalyst for Lawmakers

By Robert C. Johnston — June 16, 1999 5 min read
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With a mingled sense of hope and frustration, state lawmakers are passing scores of measures designed to help make schools safer and prevent the kind of incident that left 15 people dead at a Colorado high school this spring.

State leaders seem especially interested in preventive measures such as adding school counselors, urging mental evaluations of students caught carrying weapons, and setting up toll-free tip lines.

But in the wake of the April 20 rampage at Columbine High School and other campus shootings, legislators also want stiffer penalties for students who assault or threaten others, or perpetrate bomb scares.

“Officials are looking at punitive measures, but they are also looking at root causes and what legislatures can do,” said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

States have paid close attention to school safety issues as a spate of campus shootings over the past two school years riveted the nation’s attention. But “they’re now taking a more comprehensive view on this,” Ms. Fulton added.

Multiple Approaches

Many legislative sessions were finished by the time two students at Columbine High in Jefferson County, Colo., shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives nearly two months ago. But in the remaining sessions, the incident sparked new urgency on existing safety proposals while also serving as a catalyst for new ideas.

Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois cited Columbine last month as he signed the $13.9 million “Safe To Learn” plan to curb school violence, which grew out of a task force set up last year.

“The events in schools across the nation should convince us that we must take greater steps to protect our children and their teachers in their classrooms,” the Republican governor said.

In an example of the growing collaboration on the issue, the plan puts the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, not the state education department, in charge of an $11.1 million grant program for school safety.

“We don’t see this as us instead of them,” said Barbara Shaw, the director of the authority. “This has to be a multifaceted approach.”

The agency will also lead a five-year, K-12 violence-prevention pilot project in three Illinois school systems of various sizes.

Following the Colorado shootings, Democratic Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon of Indiana saw lawmakers revive his languishing $750,000 plan to train school safety officers statewide. But he failed to persuade them to create a state school safety board and to support his proposal to raise spending on after-school programs.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke pushed a $9 million school security plan during a special legislative session last month. The legislature approved $7 million for matching grants to help schools try strategies that have been helpful elsewhere, such as group counseling.

“The government can always do more, but Governor Locke believes that communities can do the most,” said Keith Love, the governor’s spokesman. “The matching grants get communities involved.”

Penalties and Prevention

Lawmakers are also passing harsher penalties for youth crime.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, signed a measure into law last month that adds two years to sentences for violent crimes committed on school grounds or at school activities. Students suspended or expelled for weapons-related misconduct could also lose their driver’s licenses.

Meanwhile, the school safety package in Illinois increases penalties for adults who sell firearms to anyone who is under 21 or has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime.

And New Jersey lawmakers have sent Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman a bill that would increase penalties for causing a bomb scare to a maximum of five years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. The governor is still studying the bill.

Bomb threats interrupted school in many communities following the Columbine shootings. The North Carolina Senate passed a bill last month that would give students a 365-day suspension for making a bomb threat and allow schools to sue their parents for related disruptions.

Other proposals still in the legislative process emphasize prevention.

Gov. Gray Davis of California unveiled a plan last month to add $100 million to the fiscal 2000 state budget to combat school violence. He hopes to spend $42.5 million on conflict-resolution counselors, $15 million to review school safety plans, and $42.5 million for school safety grants.

The counselors would be welcome, said Doug Stone, a spokesman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. California’s ratio of one counselor per 1,056 K-12 students is the country’s highest, far surpassing the national average of one per 512 students, Mr. Stone said.

“We want to provide schools with the necessary resources so we are at least on top of the situation as much as humanly possible,” he said.

In other efforts to head off violence:

  • Florida lawmakers have sent GOP Gov. Jeb Bush a measure calling for psychological reviews of students caught with weapons at schools. Oregon is debating a similar bill.
  • A Senate-passed bill in Connecticut would require students who threaten a teacher or classmate to undergo eight weeks of counseling.
  • The lower house of the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill to start a state justice department-run hot line during business hours, Monday through Friday. Pennsylvania lawmakers are debating the merits of financing local hot lines or a single statewide line. Such telephone lines would be used to report suspected threats to school safety.

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., likes toll-free tip lines. But he cautioned that they must be implemented properly.

“They must provide adequate support and protection for young people,” he said. “The students must feel like there will be a commitment on the part of adults to follow up.”

Legislators appear unlikely to turn away from school violence issues anytime soon. Several states have new task forces looking into the subject. And the National Conference of State Legislatures kicks off a two-year initiative on school violence at its national conference July 24-28 in Indianapolis.

“We know the solutions have to do with juvenile justice, school sites, and the family,” said Julie Davis Bell, the education program director for the Denver-based NCSL. “We want to bring these folks together to help us figure this out.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 1999 edition of Education Week as Columbine Serves as Catalyst for Lawmakers

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