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Here’s What Happened the Last Time Congress Considered School Shootings

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 20, 2018 3 min read
Participants rush out of the cafeteria after hearing simulated gunshots during a lockdown exercise at Milford High School in Milford, Mass., earlier this month. More than 500 teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers and school custodians participated in the training program that taught alternatives to staying in lockdown during a school shooting.
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In a relatively rare event, congressional Democrats and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are on the same page regarding a big issue: They both want Capitol Hill to hold hearings on school shootings, after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last week.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012 that left 20 students and six educators dead in Newtown Connecticut, there was a similar call to action.

So what was the response from federal lawmakers?

In 2013, just over two months after the Sandy Hook shootings, we profiled a House education committee hearing focused on school safety. Many of the same issues and questions that have arisen after the Parkland shootings were also discussed during that hearing: things like school resource officers and access to mental health.

Bill Bond, the former principal of a high school in West Paducah, Ky., where three students were killed in 1997, told lawmakers that, “Students know more about what’s going on in school than the principal,” and that several children saw the gun that was used in the shootings. He stressed that everyone in a school community must feel responsibility for safety and security. Then-Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., also raised school counselors’ responsibility and capability to spot warning signs in students.

“However, the committee didn’t engage in a robust debate over whether the federal government, or state and local governments, should be financing school safety efforts,” Politics K-12 co-blogger Alyson Klein wrote in Education Week at the time.

And the committee’s top Democrat at the time, Rep. George Miller of California (who has since retired), was adamant that new school-safety measures could not be divorced from the issue of firearms.

“Any school safety changes in the wake of Sandy Hook must be implemented in tandem with comprehensive gun-violence prevention,” he said. “Common-sense strategies are needed to keep guns out of the hands of those who intend harm.”

A school security official for the Fairfax County, Va. district, also said he did not support arming teachers in order to improve school security.

The hearing took place shortly after the Obama administration released a series of proposals after Sandy Hook to address a variety of issues, including school safety and mental-health services, as a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Before the hearing, the then-chairman of the committee, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., responded to these plans by asking how they would differ significantly from programs already in place, and how they would avoid repeating problems associated the Safe and Drug-Free School Grant program.

The big-ticket Obama proposals didn’t get a ton of traction in Congress. A Senate measure intended to prevent gun violence that also included provisions designed to help mental-health services and security infrastructure at schools ultimately didn’t get a floor vote. Retired Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, then-chairman of the Senate education committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at that time the ranking member, worked together on the mental-health and safety provisions for schools.

And former House staffer told us that while the momentum for significant change hadn’t yet petered out by the time of that February House hearing on school safety, “It wasn’t too [long] after that that it was clear nothing was going to happen.”

However, Congress did fund grant programs at the Education Department for mental-health training, among others, after Sandy Hook. The Department of Justice also provided additional funding for a grant program for school resource officers at the Justice Department for 2013, 2015, and 2016, through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. For fiscal 2017, the department changed the COPS program by requiring all such officers who are supported by those federal grants to attend the Basic School Resource Officer course.