Federal commission releases report on school safety

The Federal Commission on School Safety released its report today. The Commission recommends increasing school safety through intergovernmental cooperation and funding of school safety training and building security measures and increased cooperation and funding to provide school-based mental health services. It recommends schools develop crisis training and media plans to respond to and address school shootings, advocates for emergency and crisis training for law enforcement and applauds efforts to funnel retired law enforcement officers and members of the military into education-related jobs. 

Many of the issues and recommendations identified in the report were addressed on the state level by the 2018 Kansas legislature but the federal report will no doubt prompt additional discussion. Learn more about school safety at KASB’s Advocacy in Action workshop January 16-17, 2019 in Topeka; registration opens soon.  

The 188-page report does not mandate that school districts arm teachers or other school staff but says districts and local communities should consider “various approaches to school safety based on their own unique needs.” 

The Commission recommends rescinding an Obama-era guidance document that sought to address race-based disparities in student discipline measures. It says the guidance may have “paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe” by allegedly tying the hands of local administrators and teachers. 

The commission was formed in March 2018 in the wake of the February 14 school shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It met several times across the country, holding listening sessions and meeting with survivors and family members affected over the past decades of school shootings, including Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas. The Commission was comprised of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“There is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across the country,” Commissioners said in a letter to President Donald Trump. “Such a prescriptive approach by the federal government would be inappropriate, imprudent, and ineffective. We focused instead on learning more about, and then raising awareness of, ideas that are already working for communities across the country. That is why the Commission’s work and recommendations focus on a variety of school sizes, structures, and geographic locations.”

“The federal government can play a role in enhancing safety in schools,” the cover letter continues. “However, state legislators should work with local school leaders, teachers, parents, and students themselves to address their own unique challenges and develop their own specific solutions. What may work in one community may or may not be the right approach in another. Each local problem needs local solutions. Rather than mandate what schools must do, this report serves to identify options that policymakers should explore.”  

“Ultimately, ensuring the safety of our children begins within ourselves, at the kitchen table, in houses of worship, and in community centers. The recommendations within this report do not and cannot supplant the role families have in our culture and in the lives of children. Our country’s moral fabric needs more threads of love, empathy, and connection. Together with states, local communities, and families, we can all continue working to uphold our promise to keep students safe as they pursue their futures at school,” the Commissioners conclude. 

Many of the issues raised in the report, especially around creating a positive school climate and increasing mental health services to students, were priories identified during school safety discussions at KASB’s fall regional meetings (summary). 

The report is divided into three broad categories:  Prevent; Protect and Mitigate; and Respond and Recover. Highlights include: 

Prevent 

This section of the report focuses on character education and creation of a positive school climate “to help students feel connected to rather than isolated from, teachers and fellow students. They can also help combat cyberbullying, an area where states, districts, and schools are developing and evaluating promising new approaches. Student-led efforts are critical to addressing cyberbullying. Firm and prompt responses to cyberbullying by staff are necessary as well as having suitable systems for the reporting of incidents,” the report says. 

Regarding mental health, the commission recommends improving access to school-based mental health and counseling for young people. The Kansas legislature in 2018 funded a pilot program to support partnerships between schools and community mental health centers in the Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka, Parsons and Garden City school districts and the interlocal served by the Abilene school district. 

The report also recommends integrating mental health, substance misuse, and other services into school and pediatric settings, including telemedicine delivery of services. 

The prevention section also recommends the development of media plans, including the possible adoption of a “no notoriety” policy that avoids using shooters’ names and photos but focusing instead on facts and victims. 

Violent entertainment: the report recommends state and local education agencies work with parents “to strengthen internet safety measures to curb access to inappropriate content. In addition, the entertainment industry should ensure its rating systems provide parents with the full complement of information needed to make informed decisions about entertainment for their children.” 

Regarding school discipline, the report criticizes an Obama-era guidance document on school discipline that was intended to address racial disparities in school sanctions and calls for the guidance to be rescinded. Most school shooters, including the Parkland assailant, have been Caucasian.  

“The Commission is deeply troubled that the Guidance, while well-intentioned, may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe,” the report says. “Significant concerns also remain regarding the legal framework upon which the Guidance is based. These concerns, together with the repeated concerns expressed by many that disciplinary decisions are best left in the hands of classroom teachers and administrators, warrant rescission of the Guidance.  

“The Commission thus makes the following recommendations:  

  1. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED), should rescind the Guidance and its associated sub-regulatory guidance documents. ED should develop information for schools and school districts that will identify resources and best practices to assist schools in improving school climate and learning outcomes as well as in protecting the rights of students with disabilities during the disciplinary process while maintaining overall student safety.
  2. DOJ and ED should continue to vigorously enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provide appropriate information to assist schools and the public in understanding how ED will investigate and resolve cases of intentional discrimination.

Finally, the Prevention section recommends additional training on safe storage of firearms and encouraging states to adopt laws permitting “extreme risk protection orders” (ERPOs), which can prevent individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others from possessing or purchasing firearms. 

“The available research does not support the conclusion that age restrictions for firearms purchases are effective in reducing homicides, suicides, or unintentional deaths,” commissioners said. “Most school shooters obtain their weapons from family members or friends rather than by purchasing them. States should consider offering training or other resources to promote safe storage of firearms.” 

Protect and Mitigate 

Training: “All school personnel play a role in school safety and should take part in school safety training, the report says. “Those best positioned to respond to acts of violence are those with specialized training such as school resource officers (SROs) who are generally sworn law enforcement officers. With respect to training and other related aspects of school safety, states and local policies and approaches should reflect their own unique circumstances and needs.” 

The Kansas State Board of Education has adopted school safety standards that include crisis plans and staff training. The standards will be formally released to districts no later than January 1. 

Troops to Teachers: “Military veterans and retired law enforcement officers often possess the leadership, experience, and essential training to help ensure the safety and security of our nation’s schools,” the commission states. “As the Troops to Teachers program attests, veterans and retired law enforcement officers can also serve as highly effective educators where there are reduced barriers to certification and appropriate incentives are in place.” 

Building and campus security: the commission recommends school districts conduct a risk assessment to “identify vulnerabilities and enable the development of a strategy to address any security gaps. Effective security plans use a layered approach across all three areas of a school: entry points, the building envelope (e.g., walls, roofs, windows, doors), and the classroom. An effective security plan can be especially valuable in rural areas, where law enforcement response times may be significantly longer than in more urban jurisdictions.” 

The report recommends the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “periodically update and provide training on its K–12 School Security: A Guide for Preventing and Protecting against Gun Violence (including the associated security self-assessment) and, along with its interagency partners, the Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. In addition, DHS should develop options for the creation of a train-the-trainer program to push expertise out into the states and localities to help school districts and individual schools complete these activities. 3. DHS, in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, should explore legislative, regulatory, or procedural modifications to existing grant programs to enable more grant funding or related resources to be available for enhancing school security operations and physical infrastructure. As part of this, DHS should explore designating a portion of Homeland Security Grants for school security activities, and premise the use of those funds on activities that accomplish enhancements recommended in DHS guidance or standards.” 

The Kansas legislature in 2018 appropriated $5 million in school safety and security matching funds to help schools improve building security. Grants were awarded to 156 of the state’s 286 school districts; districts requested $13.2 million in funding.  

Respond and Recover 

“Reports prepared in the aftermath of school shootings have universally recognized the value of preparing for a potential active shooter incident through training, planning, and related strategies,” the Commission notes. 

Recommendations in this section include:  

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in coordination with other federal agencies, should develop active shooter preparedness training guidelines for educators and administrators, including recommended minimum standards for teacher certification requirements. 

“In order to assist schools in deciding the optimal approach to preparing students for active shooter situations, federal agencies should work with school security stakeholders to identify and develop recommended, age-specific best practices or options for consideration for active shooter training and exercises for students spanning the K–12 spectrum. 

“States should 1. consider requiring or providing funding for all school districts and individual schools to develop and (on no less than an annual basis) provide training and exercises on comprehensive active shooter preparedness programs. 2. Teacher preparedness is critical to school security, especially in cases of an active shooter. As every state requires teachers to meet certain requirements for certification to teach in their state, it is recommended that states and school districts consider requiring basic school security and/or active shooter preparedness training as part of their state’s teacher certification requirements. 3. All schools should conduct active shooter training and exercises for staff on a recurring basis as well as age-appropriate active shooter training for students. Exercises might include evaluations that assess the participant’s ability to meet exercise objectives and capabilities, and document strengths, areas for improvement, core capability performance, and corrective actions in an After-Action Report or Improvement Plan. Following the exercise, organizations should develop a plan to implement the corrective actions identified during the exercise to improve plans, build and sustain capabilities, and maintain readiness.”

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