As school, law enforcement and political officials gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, on Tuesday for the Federal Commission on School Safety’s fourth and final listening session, most agreed on one central principle: communication.
For Alabama state Superintendent Eric Mackey, staff members across all departments and disciplines need to know what resources are available in times of crisis. Marshall Fisher, commissioner of Mississippi’s Department of Public Safety, said communication was also at the top of his list of priorities. And Mac McCutcheon, speaker of Alabama’s House of Representatives, said any training officials get is only as good as those involved.
“And those involved need to be in unison,” he said.
None of the commission’s four official members – Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, or Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – attended the event. Representatives from each department presided instead.
With recent school shootings impacting schools in southern states, including Texas and Florida, officials from neighboring states – such as Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina – gathered at the meeting for a roundtable discussion on how to address future threats and boost school safety.
“One school shooting is one school shooting too many,” said Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, who stood in for DeVos, before introducing the speakers.
Hal Taylor, secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, said it’s essential for schools and police to be in contact during a school threat. Alabama currently has a virtual school safety system that allows school officials to share map and emergency response data with first responders in real time, but Fisher said educators can go even further.
There’s one group that has not had a voice in these conversation, he said: students. He said asking them about school shootings and including them in prevention plans will benefit the process. Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, pointed to student ambassadors, who communicate with administrators about “what’s really going on” on campus, as an example.
Talking about these ideas and learning about what measures other districts and schools are taking will help officials piece together a feasible solution to keep schools safe, said Jennifer Newell of the National Safe Schools Alliance.
“Sometimes we get in a hurry to reinvent the wheel, and I think we need to take the opportunity to learn from each other and not make the same mistakes,” she said.
Officials call for more mental health counselors in schools
In keeping with topics that have dominated past listening sessions, speakers at Tuesday’s gathering also called for more attention to students' mental health. While most agree these services are an important part of the school safety conversation, states have retreated on funding these resources, even after school shootings.
There’s a need for more trained mental health counselors in many schools, Mackey said, and in Georgia, state Rep. Rick Jasperse said while there are plenty of academic counselors, finding mental health professionals to talk to students has been a major struggle.
Rural areas especially face a serious shortage of mental health professionals. Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, suggested having models in which such professionals come into schools to provide services so students don’t miss an entire day of school and parents don’t have to take off of work.
Getting rid of the stigma related to mental health services is part of the problem, Beshear said, but added that more funding is needed to provide services as early as possible.
“Early intervention is key to keep situations from escalating,” she said.
Keeping schools safe is no one-size-fits-all fix
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said local flexibility is important in solving the problems surrounding school safety and school threats. Every school has its own security needs that may be different from those of others, she said.
“There is no cookie cutter solution to this,” she said.
Across districts and schools, buildings are laid out differently and require different security measures. Even within a school, security measures might differ depending on the wing, hallway or classroom students and teachers are in during a threat.
University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides said this is especially true on larger school campuses, such as a university. But with the proper training and guidance, students and staff members should have electronic access to the safety procedures for any room they might be in if an active threat were to occur.
Several officials at the session agreed that the best way to approach school safety is to take a preventive approach. Instead of developing sound responses to school violence incidents and other threats, they should aim to keep them from happening in the first place, said Kathy Martinez-Prather, director of Texas State University’s Texas School Safety Center.
“Prevention and early warning signs are critical,” she said. “It’s critical that schools know how to respond, but it’s important to make sure [school threats] don’t happen in the first place.”
Even in situations where schools seem to be doing everything right – such as Santa Fe High School in Texas, where 10 people were killed in a May shooting – these tragedies still happen, and schools are still at risk. For McCutcheon, it was a sobering reality: There’s no way to eliminate school shootings altogether, and they will happen, he said.
“It’s a shame that we have to worry about something like this,” he said, “but that’s the day we’re in."