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States Are Taking Action on School Security—And Facing Hurdles

Florida Gov. Rick Scott lays out his school safety proposal during a press conference in Tallahassee. The $500 million package would put police officers in many schools, but would not open the door to letting teachers carry guns.

—Mark Wallheiser/AP

The shooting that left 17 high school students and staff members dead in Parkland, Fla., has supercharged debate in state capitals over what policymakers should do to enhance school safety.

But governors and legislators are confronting—once again—the political and logistical hurdles to swift action on school security.

Since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, state and local politicians have enacted a range of laws to address school security. Additional legislation followed the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As a result, school officials today have to navigate myriad school security policies using a hodgepodge of funding sources.

In the aftermath of the latest shooting, policymakers have scrambled to determine what’s already on the books and what’s not working.

“As long as incidents keep happening, legislators feel they have to keep trying to find ways to stop this,” said Michelle Exstrom, the Education Group Director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Every single shooting, it brings them back to the fact that they have a profound responsibility to keep kids safe in schools.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Feb. 14 mass killing, had a slew of security measures already in place, including an armed sheriff’s deputy, well-rehearsed lockdown procedures, and several classroom and hallway cameras. All of these systems fell short when 19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz stormed through one of the school’s campus buildings with an AR-15, opening fire on teenagers and staff members.

Big-Ticket Proposals

Since then, everyone from President Donald Trump to governors, state legislators, and local school board members have pushed proposals that include arming teachers, adding more police officers to schools, adding security cameras, fencing, and other measures.

Governors in states such as Indiana, Maryland, and Washington have proposed to upend their school security strategies, promising to pour millions of dollars toward their efforts.

Others have suggested they tweak their existing laws such as tasking districts to audit school security measures and conducting more lockdown drills. Still others have set up commissions to better assess what they need to do.

Some of the most high-profile and contentious debates over school safety so far have taken place in Florida.

The state has some of the nation’s loosest gun restrictions and many activists there have blamed the shooting on expansive gun rights, lax school security protocol, and teenagers’ ability to purchase guns.

After thousands of students marched on the state capitol in the days after the shooting, Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed a package of bills costing $500 million that would place school resource officers in many of the state’s schools, staff schools with mental health experts, and restrict the purchasing of guns by those under 21.

Florida’s House of Representatives, by contrast, has proposed a bill that would, among other things, allow teachers with permission from school officials and local police agencies to carry weapons.

The governor said arming teachers isn’t an effective strategy.

“I disagree with arming teachers,” Scott said. “You need law enforcement that is well trained. … Let teachers focus on teaching.”

Whether or not to arm teachers has dominated discussions in other states, too.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who is running for reelection this year, has said that arming teachers is a step too far.

“I don’t agree with the premise that the answer is to put more teachers into training to have them armed in the classroom,” Walker said. “I think there are other ways we’re going to roll out in the next few weeks. … We want something that’s going to help school districts across the board.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, another Republican up for reelection, pledged $125 million toward improving school safety in buildings and urged schools to update their security plans. He’s also against arming teachers.

“Classrooms should never be a place of fear for our children, and no mom or dad should ever have to worry when they send their kids off to school in the morning, whether their son or daughter is going to have to come home safely,” Hogan said during a press conference.

Arming Teachers

At least 15 states already have laws on the books allowing for teachers to bring guns to schools, but set widely varying conditions and ground rules, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Texas, where some trained teachers have long been allowed to carry weapons to school, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has now tasked his state’s education agency to conduct school security audits.

“Immediate steps must be taken to keep our students and communities safe, with the understanding that more will be expected in the future,” Abbott said in the aftermath of the Florida shooting.

Oklahoma’s legislature is considering two bills that would arm more teachers and allow anyone 21 and older without a prior felony conviction to carry a gun without a license.

And Tennessee’s legislators as of last week were considering a bill that would allow for one certified armed teacher in school for every 75 students.

Governors in states such as New Mexico and Wisconsin have proposed packages that increase school security measures, including adding school resource officers.

Paying for such initiatives can be another matter. America’s public school infrastructure is already antiquated and in severe need of repair. Updating 30-year-old buildings that barely have functioning Wi-Fi with new electronic locks and security cameras can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Local politicians have been reluctant to pay for these costs and have sent dozens of parents to state capitals instead to lobby for state money.

Legislators in many states are already financially strapped and in recent days have proposed to pay for security measures through closing tax loopholes, pulling revenue from other school costs or taking out bonds. A group of legislators in Maine, for example, has proposed that the state take out a $20 million bond to pay for school facility security upgrades and to pay for more school resource officers.

Other state leaders, such as Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, have chosen to set up task forces and panels and hearings.

But in doing so, some state leaders risk the ire of those who are seeking more immediate action.

“Governor Sununu’s inaction on guns is likely due to his A-rating from the NRA and his decision to expand gun rights as governor. Sununu’s unshakable opposition to common sense gun reform is shameful,” said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the state’s Democratic party. “He can’t mask his inaction with a school safety initiative.”

Vol. 37, Issue 23, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: March 7, 2018, as States Confront Range of Hurdles to Swift Action on School Security

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Daarel Burnette II

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