In response to the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Minnesota lawmakers were adamant about adding school safety to their agenda during the 2018 legislative session.
While the strategies for what that would look like varied, a sense of urgency around the issue appeared to cross party lines. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton kicked off the discussion by proposing a school safety package that included funding for security upgrades to school buildings and f0r additional services to better address students’ mental health needs. He also tacked on a wishlist of additional gun-control measures.
Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, proposed a bill that would free up existing school funds that could be used for building security upgrades.
Even amid the debate at the Capitol over the various proposals, student-led gun-control rallies continued to make the news. So too did school violence, with a shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18 claiming the lives of eight students and two teachers.
Despite the pressure from those factors, though, Minnesota lawmakers’ efforts fell short of what many had hoped for. No gun control bills even got a hearing in the Senate. And the school safety provisions that did get traction ended up spread among two bills. Republicans tucked half of the proposed school safety dollars into the tax bill that Dayton vetoed. The other half is included in the bonding bill that Dayton reluctantly signed yesterday, a measure that includes $25 million in grant funding reserved exclusively for school facility security improvements.
Here’s a look at what that lone school safety measure actually entails — and why some school safety experts, and some local students, have little faith it will accomplish all that much.
As spelled out in the bonding bill, the one-time state allocation of $25 million to address school safety will be awarded to districts that apply for funding. Districts may apply for a maximum of $500,000 for each qualifying school building, to cover “improvements related to violence prevention and facility security.”
The bill doesn’t spell out any specific examples, but qualifying items might include things like bullet-proof glass, metal detectors, door locks and security cameras. These dollars cannot be used to fund any type of personnel — whether that be school police officers or school psychologists.
The funds will be administered by the state Department of Education. But the commissioner of education must consult with the Minnesota School Safety Center, which is housed within the state Department of Public Safety’s division of homeland security and emergency management, prior to awarding any grants. The grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, with at least half of the grants reserved for rural districts.
At a press conference held Wednesday morning, Dayton told reporters that this funding for school safety “was certainly a consideration” in his decision to sign the bonding bill. But he also expressed frustration over the fact that the school safety measures aren’t funded with surplus dollars. Rather, it draws funds from the state’s budget reserve fund.
The tactic of addressing school safety concerns by investing a one-time money into things like security hardware and equipment and infrastructure issues is nothing new, says Kenneth Trump, a leading school safety expert who has been consulting with schools across the nation for more than 30 years. And while security hardware and equipment can be a helpful tool, he cautions it’s “only as strong as the weakest human link behind it.”
Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, has been an expert witness for the defense in lawsuits brought against Newtown, Conn. over the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, along with a number of other school-related cases involving shootings and abductions. He recently finished a case where a 5-year-old was abducted “right out of a classroom,” he said, noting the child was allowed to leave the building with someone they shouldn’t have gone with and then sexually assaulted and “dumped in a park the next day.”
“The facts and the merits of each case vary, but the consistent theme is they involve allegations of failures of people and procedures — not products and hardware,” he said. “If you don’t balance out that focus to include as strong of an effort on the people side of school safety — the training, awareness, policies and procedures, planning, drilling — you’re at risk of creating a false sense of security by overemphasizing the security hardware and equipment.”
Additionally, he adds, when he and his colleagues conduct follow-up assessments with schools, what they often find is that three or four years down the road schools run into maintenance issues with the security equipment that they’d installed. Once it’s in need of upgrades or repairs, there’s no more funding available to cover these sorts of ongoing expenses.
He’s been in schools almost every week since Parkland, he says and it’s clear that school counselors and psychologists are overwhelmed with the level of unmet need in their buildings. In response, he says a number of schools have begun contracting with outside mental health services, so they can “identify kids and triage those with the most intensive needs” so that they get the one-on-one counseling that they need.
Dr. Scott Poland, an expert on school safety who specializes in youth mental health and past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, says school staff can detect at-risk students at an early age, but school counselors are often bogged down by scheduling and testing duties for all students. Likewise, school psychologists’ caseloads are maxed out by simply meeting the testing and services needs of special education students.
“It seems that there’s calls for the hardware side of school safety — fortifications, fences, more policemen, more surveillance cameras — things you can actually see,” he said, noting the personal piece often gets overlooked in the school safety equation. “The bottom line is school shooters are not normal kids. They’re mentally ill kids. And what we really need are lots of resources in the schools.”
Students want more
Ben Jaeger, a 16-year-old junior at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School who’s taken a leading role in local youth-led efforts to lobby for gun-control reforms, says his initial reaction to how school safety measures panned out this session was one of “disappointment and anger.”
“Anything is helpful,” he said of the $25 million earmarked for building security upgrades. But he says he’d rather that money be spent on more mental health services for students in schools.
His greatest disappointment, however, is the fact that none of the gun-control reform measures he’d been lobbying for these past few months even get a hearing in the Senate this session.
“That’s cowardly; that’s being afraid of a very small group of voters, that they will make you lose your job,” he said of the Minnesota lawmakers who barred this facet of the school safety debate from going anywhere.
“The contrast of watching one day a kid get gunned down in schoool. Then watching, the next day, the people who arguably have some of the most power — in Minnesota, at least — watching them not do anything and get bogged down in politics is shameful, and not something I could really understand until I saw it.”
Asked whether he thinks Minnesota youth who’d been showing up at the state capital demanding gun-control reforms would stay involved now that session is over, he said most have taken a bit of a break to focus on finals and other end-of-year commitments. But speaking on the behalf of Students Demand Action, Jaeger says they’re starting to regroup and turn their sights toward summer — a time for youth recruitment and more lobbying.
He anticipates his group will look to set up a voter registration table at the State Fair, along with a student presence at other local events like town hall forums, where they plan to connect with elected representatives and candidates, constantly reminding them that “this is something that’s still very relevant, something that we care about and will expect you to address at the next legislative session.”
Sadhika Prabhu, 16, one of Jaeger’s peers who lives in Republican Sen. Warren Limmer’s district in Maple Grove, says she’ll be working to get more students in her district involved over the summer. She has already met with Limmer, chair of the Senate judiciary and public safety finance and policy committee, and she’s determined to continue putting pressure on him to address gun violence next year.
She was inspired to get involved after seeing the Parkland students advocate for changes in gun-control laws. But after getting involved, she’s learned a lesson many who get involved in the legislative do: that any significant changes require a sustained effort.
“It kind of looked like a movie moment where everything was going to fall together and we were going to work with the adults and make laws that would end up benefiting our communities. But, instead, what happened is we got held back.”
As for the sole school safety measure that passed this session, she’s far from satisfied. She doesn’t support the so-called “target-hardening” approach that focuses on fortifying buildings. “That’s putting us on the defense. If anything, I think it’s inviting people to try and break down that barrier that’s being built up,” she said. “Instead, I think we should be proactive. [That] means making sure every student feels included in the school building. That comes from implementing anti-bullying campaigns, helping counselors out.”
Other local students have attempted to keep their focus on simply keeping the issue of school safety relevant. They are demanding action, but not spelling out specific gun-control measures or other asks of state legislators.
But they, too, are not satisfied with the $25 million in school safety grants that passed this session. So they’re looking ahead to see how they might be able to sustain the momentum generated by their peers across the nation through election season and into the next legislative session.
For Katie Nowak, 16, a Sophomore at Eden Prairie High School, that means sticking with a project that she and three of her classmates launched after participating in the March 7 rally outside of the state capitol.
Their project, Keep It Relevant, seeks to help keep the issue of school shootings in the forefront of voters’ and lawmakers’ minds. Their strategy is simple: equip two volunteers each day with a photo of a school shooting victim and station them at the capitol.
“It’s becoming a numbness that America has that we want to bring the victims’ faces back to,” Nowak said. ‘Because if you put a face and a life to this issue, it becomes a lot more personal to people.”
But they’ve struggled to find volunteers, she says. It doesn’t mean they’re giving up quite yet. But it did come as a bit of a surprise to them, given the flurry of youth activism post-Parkland. “We put the word out and we assumed we’d just get people coming to us,” she said, noting the issue they’ve been running into is that students aren’t able to miss school to sign up for a volunteer shift. This summer, they may reconsider their strategy, she added, by relocating volunteers from the capitol to other events like the State Fair and town halls.
Reflecting on the school safety funding that did come through this year, Ella Doyle, a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul who helped organized the March 7 rally at the state capitol, says she thinks the legislature “took a ridiculous amount of time to hash this out.”
While she says things like metal detectors in schools may help deter future school shooters, she’s not convinced physical improvements to school buildings, alone, will suffice. If it takes another student-led rally to move the needle forward on things like gun-control reform, she says that’s always a possible next step.
She’s been taking notes from the seniors she worked with this year, she said. And she’ll be passing along everything that she’s learned to her younger peers. With the help of social media, they’re able to stay connected over the summer and to grow their social networks. To better connect with lawmakers, she says she’ll be encouraging her peers to translate all their passion from social media to handwritten letters, which she’d heard legislators pay more attention to.
“I think people don’t often give my generation the credit it may deserve. Yes there is something going on with our brains where we can get bored easy, but we feel things just as fiercely as adults. And when we get angry, we can sit down and write a handwritten letter,” she said. “It’s not about attacking generations that are older than us. It’s about coming together with them …. if that’s what has to happen to have that conversation, I think a lot of people are willing to do that, to meet in the middle.”