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Trump Urges Focus on Mental Health After School Shootings, Offers No Specifics

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — February 15, 2018 7 min read
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President Donald Trump Thursday expressed sympathy for the families of the victims of a massive school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left at least 17 students and educators dead. He called for a new national focus on mental health, but did not outline concrete steps that his administration would take to prevent future mass shootings.

“Yesterday a school filed with innocent children and caring teachers became the scene of terrible violence, hatred and evil. To every parent, teacher, and child who is hurting so badly we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do to ease your pain,” Trump said at the White House. “No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school.”

He added that he was “committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” He said he would be meeting later this month with the governors and attorney generals and that, “Making our children safer will be our top priority. It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.”

Trump said he planned to visit Parkland, Fla., the site of the Feb. 14 shooting, to meet with local officials and coordinate the federal response. But the president did not say what his administration or Congress might do to avert such tragedies in the future. He ignored a shouted question about from a reporter about gun control.

Nearly a year ago, Trump signed House Joint Resolution 40, which nullified an Obama administration rule that prohibited people with mental illnesses from purchasing firearms under certain conditions. The Obama-era rule was finalized in December 2016. Both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the Obama rule, according to PolitiFact.

And president’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal seeks to scrap Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is currently funded at $400 million and is the main federal program that districts can use for mental health, school safety, school counseling, and more.

DeVos Calls for Hearings

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called on Congress to hold hearings on school shootings in an interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

“I’m just heartbroken for all the families that have been impacted by this,” DeVos said. “Congress needs to be holding hearings. We’ve seen lots of discussion about this every time we’ve had another incident. We’ve seen lots of finger-pointing back and forth. But we need to have a conversation at the level where lawmakers can actually impact the future. ... One of the shootings is one too many. ... We have to have an honest conversation, and Congress needs to lead on this, it’s their job.”

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, doesn’t see eye-to-eye with DeVos on much. But she agreed that hearings are a smart move.

“As a mother and a grandmother, I can’t imagine the shock and pain families in Florida are going through right now, and sadly those feelings are not new or rare in our country,” Murray said in a statement. “Families across the country are tired of waiting for Congress to step up, have the tough conversations, and adopt commonsense gun safety and other policies to end this scourge in our schools and communities, so I am very glad that Secretary DeVos has requested Congressional hearings on this issue and I wholeheartedly agree.”

Democrats on the House education committee have echoed Murray’s call for hearings on school shootings, noting in a Friday letter to Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the committee, that their panel has not held hearings on the issue since 2013.

In the radio interview, DeVos declined to offer an opinion on whether teachers should be trained to use guns. That’s a question states and local community leaders should answer on their own, she said.

“I think this is an important issue for all states to grapple with and to tackle. They clearly have the opportunity and the option to do that,” DeVos said. “I think this needs to be part of the broader more robust conversation about how we can avoid these things in the future.”

Congressional Response

Already, lawmakers are calling for action. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leading proponent of gun control legislation, said Wednesday that America is the only nation where such masascres occur and that policymakers are to blame.

“It only happens here not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction,” said Murphy said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. “We are responsible for a level of mass atrocity that happens in this country with zero parallel anywhere else.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s two senators offered dramatically different responses to the slayings.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called for Congress to renew efforts to beef up background checks on guns and to ban assault weapons.

“Let’s don’t hide from it,” he said. “Let’s have a conversation about this right now. Not just about mental illness, and that’s part of it. Not just about protection in our schools, and that’s part of it. Let’s get to the root cause. Let’s come together and help end this violence. Let’s talk about that 19-year-old carrying an AR-15. Let’s do what needs to be done, and let’s get these assault weapons off our streets.”

But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that while it was not inappropriate to mix grieving with a debate over policy, of the proposals that have been offered up to this point would not have prevented this tragedy.

“It is a very difficult thing to stop” if someone is determined to kill people, he said. But he added there were clear warnings on social media that the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at the school was mentally unstable.

“There is no longer such a thing as an innocent posting online where you can just assume the person is weird or harmless,” Rubio said. “I’m not saying, don’t focus on the gun part. But we also have to focus on the violence part.”

Sandy Hook Aftermath

The Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the second-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history. It is second only to the slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, which left 20 children and six adult staff members dead.

After that incident, then-President Barack Obama called on Vice President Joe Biden to seek solutions to the country’s gun violence problem. The administration sought a ban on assault weapons sales, limits on magazine capacity, and increased background-check requirements for gun purchasers. Those efforts failed for lack of congressional support.

The president also proposed $150 million in new money for school-based resource officers and mental-health professionals, $50 million for training new social workers, $30 million to help districts revamp their emergency-preparedness plans, and $15 million in new funding to train teachers in “mental-health first aid.

Congress ended up funding some similar proposals. For instance, lawmakers provided money for at least three grant programs aimed at mental health, school counseling, and school safety at the Education Department. Those included school climate transformation grants and grants for school emergency management. The Education Department also provided grants to schools impacted by shootings through Project SERV, the primary vehicle for responding to disasters and violence.

And lawmakers allocated additional funding for school resource officers in 2013, 2015, and 2016, according to the National Association for School Resource Officers.

Congress provided nearly $15 million for Mental Health Awareness Training Grants, to help teachers and other adults who work with youth to provide “mental health first aid.” Congress also provided nearly $50 million in grants to state education agencies to help better coordinate state efforts to make schools safer and boost access to mental health services. And lawmakers approved nearly $20 million for a Healthy Transitions program, to support state efforts to make schools safer and increase access to mental health programs.

Lawmakers also made mental health a focus of the Every Student Succeeds Act, allowing, for instance schools to use Title I dollars for disadvantaged students for counseling and mental health programs. Schools can also use professional development money under Title II to train teachers on mental health, for instance by partnering with public or private mental health organizations.

ESSA also consolidated other health and safety programs to create the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, a flexible $1.6 billion fund that school districts could use for school counseling and safety programs. But Congress only provided a quarter of the funding for that program, $400 million. And the Trump administration has proposed slashing it entirely. Trump also proposed refocusing the department’s school climate grants on combatting the opioid epidemic.

President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15 at the White House.

--Evan Vucci/AP

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