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Senator’s Anti-Violence Bill Backs Active-Shooter Training, School Internet Monitoring

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 23, 2019 3 min read
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A Republican U.S. senator has introduced legislation to address mass violence that encourages schools to identify students who present an “imminent risk” of harming themselves or others through their internet activity, and also directs the federal government to develop best practices for school behavioral intervention teams.

In addition, the Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts (RESPONSE) Act, introduced Wednesday by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would make it easier for local law enforcement and emergency responders to access money for active-shooter training from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. And more broadly, it wants federal agencies to collaborate on methods for expanding the workforce of people who work in mental health.

Cornyn, who used to be the number two Republican lawmaker in Senate leadership, said he wrote the RESPONSE Act to “reduce mass violence in our country.”

“I’ve heard from countless parents who are rightfully concerned about sending their children to school amid these attacks. That should never happen,” Cornyn wrote in a Wednesday column for the El Paso Times. “The RESPONSE Act will make schools less vulnerable through promoting best practices and internet safety policies to help schools better identify and assess students whose behavior indicates a threat of violence.”

The legislation has many components that don’t directly deal with schools. But let’s look a bit more at a couple of the elements mentioned above.

• On school internet safety, Cornyn says his bill would seek to have schools “detect online activities of minors who are at imminent risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others.” This would be done, the senator says, in order to connect those students with the services they need and prevent violence.

• In addition, the bill would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to create “best practices” that schools could use, in order to “operate behavioral intervention teams to identify students whose behavior indicates a threat of violence and ensure they receive the assistance and services they need.”

Schools are already deploying significant digital surveillance systems in the name of safety. Their supporters say that they provide schools with crucial information to help them respond quickly to real threats, and that they can often alert schools to issues that may have nothing to do with an imminent mass shooting, such as students at risk of suicide. But critics say these surveillance system vacuum up a huge and irrelevant stream of online data, can lead to false positives, and present huge problems for privacy.

Active-shooter drills in schools are also common. In 2017, for example, 4,000 school districts have trained personnel using a protocol known as ALICE to help schools prepare for violent incidents. And as of roughly a half-dozen years ago, 70 percent of public schools prepared students on how to respond to a shooting.

Once again, however, there’s a split as to how helpful these drills are. As Evie Blad reported more than two years ago, some believe these drills are not backed up by evidence, deal with extremely rare scenarios, and mainly serve to scare students and educators. Their backers counter that schools hold fire drills even though fires remain uncommon in schools; they also say drills like those included in ALICE can help children survive.

Cornyn’s bill also aims to crack down on those who manufacture and sell firearms illegally by creating a new task force. But it does not include new gun-control measures such as limits on magazine size or new age restrictions on the purchase of certain weapons. That’s bound to frustrate some groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety, that say new restrictions on firearms are a key piece of any plan to help schools be safer.

In August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked the Senate education committee, chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., “to find additional bipartisan ways to fund states’ efforts to increase school safety and to help Americans with serious mental health problems” (as Alexander put it.) Any results of that work by the committee haven’t been released yet.

Read Cornyn’s bill below:

Photo: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. (TNS via ZUMA Wire)

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