School safety experts weigh in on federal commission's potential impact
Formed in response to the February mass shooting at a Florida high school, the commission is expected to issue a final report before the end of the year
The Federal Commission on School Safety, which President Donald Trump formed in response to the February mass shooting at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, is expected to make final recommendations before the end of the year.
But most states and districts have moved ahead with their own safety measures, such as adding more school resource officers, upgrading equipment such as security cameras, and creating data-sharing agreements among state agencies.
“Local municipalities and local governments — they don’t wait,” Frank Clark, president of the Chicago Board of Education, said in an interview.
Clark also serves as chairman of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, a RAND Corp. initiative, which has received $20 million in funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and will begin accepting research proposals early next year. He added that whatever guidelines or recommendations the commission makes “will be important for everyone to look at and consider.”
Some safety experts, however, question whether this commission will have any more influence than similar groups in the past.
“Whenever there is an event, they create commissions, but then it kind of peters off until the next shooting,” Frank Quiambao, founder and director of the National Education Safety and Security Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview. “It’s a cycle that’s been going on for years.”
The commission, he said, might identify some best practices, but it’s been clear from the discussions at the commission’s public meetings that what works for some schools doesn’t work for others. There are a few actions, however, that can apply to all schools, said Quiambao, who has expertise in homeland security at both the state and federal levels.
One is the need for school leaders to have a security expert conduct a “vulnerability assessment” or to be trained to conduct one on their own. The second, he said, is the growing acceptance of having emergency kits in classrooms that allow school staff members to treat “battlefield wounds” and act as first responders until law enforcement or emergency services can arrive and enter the building.
In Chicago, Clark said the district has had success with its Safe Passage program, in which adults are hired to protect students on their route to school in areas considered more prone to violence. But he’s especially interested in the work of the research collaborative. While the collaborative’s work is much broader than school violence, Clark said he hopes to see proposals that focus on school safety.
“There is a constitutional right to own guns. There’s no way around it. What we want to focus on are what are the best policies. Will the best-quality research point us toward how we actually live with guns in the 21st century?” he said. “The fact of the matter is, horrendous things have happened. You have to believe they are preventable with the right kinds of policies.”
Better communication, mental health services emphasized at sessions
Since March, the federal commission has held a series of site visits, public listening sessions and other meetings in which they’ve heard from researchers, advocates, parents, students and officials from government, schools and law enforcement.
With the president’s proposal to arm teachers and other highly trained school personnel as a backdrop to the sessions, the commission members heard more opposition to that idea than support — even in Wyoming, where state lawmakers passed a bill last year allowing certain staff members to carry concealed weapons and where gun ownership rates are among the highest in the nation.
They also heard strong support for expanding mental health services and screening in schools as a way to identify early warning signs of troubled students who might harm themselves or others. Interagency communication plans and tip lines, such as Safe to Tell, were also widely discussed.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos chaired the commission, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, before he was fired. The cabinet members, however, did not attend all of the public sessions. And Nielsen may be replaced before the commission completes its work.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) — a framework for encouraging students to follow rules and develop social-emotional competencies — also received significant attention from the commission. Research shows that well-developed PBIS programs can reduce discipline infractions, bullying and other problem behaviors, but experts say they are unaware of any research showing that it reduces weapon violations at school.
Quiambao said the federal government could improve emergency communications and processes by making education a separate sector under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Critical Infrastructure system.
There are 16 sectors — such as energy, financial services, food and agriculture, and nuclear reactors — that are “considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof,” according to DHS. Each sector has a specific federal agency that, among other duties, provides technical assistance and consultation to members of that sector.
Education is currently a “subsector” of government facilities, but making education — from early-childhood facilities through higher education — a separate sector, Quiambao said, “would signal the importance that the federal government places on the safety and security of our children.” He added, however, that because protecting a preschool facility is quite different than protecting a university campus, following through on such a plan “would be a major organizational and political project.”
Below are links to Education Dive: K-12’s coverage of the commission’s activities throughout this past year.
DeVos school safety listening sessions give opposition chance to voice discipline concerns: Critics argue the Federal Commission on School Safety sessions should have been open to the press and included those who represent students affected by discipline disparities.
Advocates, parents call for more mental health services, reject idea of arming teachers: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who chairs the Federal Commission on School Safety, did not attend the listening session.
School safety commission hears diverse views on influence of violence in media: Additional $25M for violence prevention to be released in the "coming weeks," Attorney General Sessions told attendees.
Federal commission focuses on mental health and improving school security measures: At the commission's "listening session" in Kentucky, the topics of gun restrictions and arming teachers received little attention, but expanding school vouchers and cellphone age limits were mentioned as possible solutions.
Mental health issues dominate discussion at federal school safety meeting: The panel talked about the impact of psychotropic drugs on teens, the benefits of school-based mental health services and how privacy laws affect efforts to find collaborative solutions.
Interagency collaboration, need for more counselors highlighted at federal school safety session: The third public listening session was held in Wyoming, a state that last year passed legislation allowing "citizen sentinels" in schools.
School safety commission focuses on need for communication at final listening session: However, none of the commission's four members, including U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, attended the session.
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