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To protect schools from mass shootings, advocates urge senators to tie federal education aid to adoption of tighter security measures

Carolyn Phenicie | July 29, 2019

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People are brought out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The federal government should do more to force schools to adopt best safety practices, advocates from Florida argued at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. last week.

“We know that we cannot prevent 100 percent of these school mass murders, but we know that we can absolutely mitigate a lot of the risk,” said Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year. “Every school can do things today that can improve school safety, and many of these things are basics that cost little or no money.”

Three of the four witnesses at the hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee came because of their connections to the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida. The shooting was the impetus for a federal school safety commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; its report called for changes like arming teachers, increasing school police and “hardening” schools.

Separately, a group run by the Department of Homeland Security will meet for the first time next week to help create a national clearinghouse of school safety best practices, Schachter said. A spokesperson for the Secret Service confirmed the meeting to The 74 and added that it won’t be open to the public or live-streamed, likely because of the sensitive nature of the issues to be discussed.

Schachter and others suggested that federal funding — which nearly every public K-12 school receives — should be predicated on schools’ adoption of at least the most basic school safety practices, such as requiring that classroom doors be locked during class periods and creating a shooting response plan.

“This is not an academic discussion. Kids and teachers have been dying. School starts in less than two months,” said Stand With Parkland treasurer Tom Hoyer, whose son was killed in the shooting.

Though states have adopted some of the safety proposals, and they could become part of federal recommendations, there’s little reason to think Congress will pass any large-scale safety mandates anytime soon. Gun control bills have failed, many lawmakers are hesitant about imposing the federal will on local schools, and basic school safety grant programs often get bogged down in debates over arming teachers.

One witness and some Democratic senators, though, cautioned that as schools adopt security measures, broader changes to school climate should be considered, and added that some safety interventions can have adverse effects on some groups of students.

Increasing school resource officers, particularly in day-to-day discipline, leads to more students being suspended, expelled and referred to law enforcement for everyday misbehavior, said Deborah Temkin, senior director of education research at Education Child Trends.

Students of color and children with disabilities are particularly likely to face these harsher consequences, she added.

Active shooter drills should also be approached with caution, she said. She pointed to the importance of not making them so routine that real emergencies get ignored, or so realistic that they upset students and teachers, as has been widely reported in the media.

“We have to be careful, when we’re recommending these [safety interventions], that we consider these unintended consequences,” Temkin said.

Beyond tying federal aid to the adoption of safety measures, some changes to other laws might also be needed, the Florida advocates said.

There should be a K-12 version of the Clery Act, the nearly 30-year-old law that requires colleges to publicly report incidents of violence on campus, and a system for rating school safety, Schachter said.

Others suggested tweaking federal laws governing information privacy in education and health care, commonly known as FERPA and HIPAA, respectively. Restrictions on information sharing among school personnel, law enforcement and health care providers may have prevented Florida school officials from sharing key information about the Parkland shooter with law enforcement, a state commission convened after the shooting found.

“There’s a lot of room and a lot of opportunity” to update FERPA in particular, which hasn’t been changed since it was enacted 40 years ago, said Bob Gualtieri, chair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission and sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida.

Informing school and medical officials about the exemptions in the law would go a long way, too, he said.

“[The laws] are overly applied by the people who are charged with interpreting them and applying them, and the exceptions are not as understood as they need to be,” he added.

Others suggested what are sure to be more contentious changes, like the adoption of “red flag” laws that allow police to seize guns from those feared to be a danger to themselves or others, or broader background checks before gun purchases.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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