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White House Issues New School Safety Guidelines

from Rules for Engagement blogger Nirvi Shah

The Obama administration today released comprehensive emergency guidelines for school districts (as well as some others customized to the needs of colleges and universities and houses of worship) that are meant to help school emergency planners create new plans, or revise existing plans, for how to respond in an array of crisis situations.

The guides are the first of their kind to be jointly written by four federal agencies—the U.S. departments of Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services. According to a press release, the guides "incorporate lessons learned from the recent shootings in Newtown and Oak Creek as well as the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma." The school district-specific guide is 75 pages long.

President Obama promised a model plan for securing schools in January, as part of his "Now is the Time" collection of proposals devoted to gun control and student safety. The plan was prompted by the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 26 students and staff members were killed.

In his proposal, he noted that a 2010 survey found that while 84 percent of public schools had a written response plan in the event of a shooting, only 52 percent had drilled students on the plan in the past year.Obama said in addition to providing the model plan, the departments of Homeland Security and Justice will help schools assess their security.

The president missed his target date for releasing the plan—May—by a couple of weeks.

While Obama has now delivered on the plans, he hasn't been able to convince Congress to enact a second prong of the work: providing $30 million in one-time grants to states to help their school districts develop and implement emergency management plans. He also asked Congress to require states and school districts that accept school safety funding from the Education Department to have comprehensive, up-to-date emergency plans in place for all schools.

The shootings have spawned a variety of opinions on supposed best practices for keeping students safe at school. For example, the National Rifle Association in April offered its National School Shield plan, which advocates that schools either hire armed security officers or arm selected school employees, make improvements to school buildings, and add mental health resources.

A dueling, preemptive plan from civil rights and education groups in March argued staunchly against arming employees or adding security features such as interior surveillance cameras and metal detectors. That plan, from groups including the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP, reiterates a message they sent soon after the shootings: Schools should not add armed officers to improve safety because, instead of protecting schools, the strategy could lead to more juvenile arrests for minor offenses administrators could handle themselves.

TOMORROW IN THIS SPACE: A closer look at the guidelines' recommendations for K-12 schools.

Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this article.

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