WASHINGTON — More than two months after the mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Rep. John Kline’s Education and the Workforce Committee heard from a panel of experts Wednesday recommending a more holistic approach to school safety.
The hearing was a largely non-partisan affair. There were no fights over adding armed guards to schools as some conservatives have suggested. Instead, a panel made up of a former principal, a school counselor and in-school law enforcement advocates pitched a rather noncontroversial slate of safety proposals: increased coordination between school districts and law enforcement, putting more mental health counselors in schools and improving communication with parents and students.
While the experts tended to support increasing law enforcement’s prescience in schools, they opposed, to varying degrees, a plan pitched by gun rights advocates, including the NRA, to dramatically increase armed guards other than trained law enforcement officials.
“To be effective, schools must be operated and perceived as safe havens,” Bill Bond, a specialist for school safety with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said. “When parents send their kids to school, they believe the school has thought of and planned for every possible situation — and that’s a reasonable expectation, but one that’s very hard to meet.”
The biggest focus was on the subject of School Resource Officers, or law enforcement officials trained to work in schools. Mo Canady, the director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said SROs are there to not just protect students but do other tasks, like traffic control or drug and alcohol classes. Only about 10 percent of schools have such officers, Canady said.
California school counselor Vincent Pompei, called for increasing the number of counselors in schools, noting the national student-to-councilor ratio is about 500-to-1, and 800-to-1 in Minnesota (Sen. Al Franken has introduced a bill to increase federal funding for mental health programs in schools). His school has an SRO, Pompei said, and they coordinate with the councilors often.
Lawmakers were generally non-committal on the proposals, either those brought up Wednesday or in the gun control battle at large. But Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, one of the House’s most outspoken gun control advocates, said she doubted schools’ ability to pay for the manpower schools would need to be safer, and said broader violence-prevention legislation is needed.
Kline: Hearing was focused on safety, not guns
Kline had promised to hold a hearing on school safety they day President Obama released his gun control package. Nobody on the panel really talked about that package, or other gun control proposals, focusing instead on the broad issue of school safety.
Kline spent time in his district this week meeting with officials on school safety. He made it clear Wednesday the hearing was narrowly focused on student safety and not necessarily how to combat gun violence at large.
“The purpose of today’s hearing is not to assign blame,” he said. “This hearing is about learning what goes into protecting our schools, and preventing violence. This is about ways we an work together to help students feel safe.”
His conclusion at the end of the hearing: Schools need to do a better job creating an environment in which students can talk to adults about issues that might lead to violence in the future.
“It seems to me that’s an area where schools would be well-advised that their staff …. teachers and administrators are seen as trusted adults and the students can talk to them,” he said.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry