President Barack Obama has put school safety and expanded mental health services at the center of a plan aimed at preventing tragedies similar to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month.
The plan is informed by the recommendations from an anti-violence task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. The most high-profile portions of the proposals, unveiled Wednesday at the White House, would require background checks for all gun sales, including weapons purchased at gun shows, and ban military-style assault weapons, proposals that are likely to be a tough sell among federal lawmakers.
But Obama said he would do what he could to push the proposals. "While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try," he said in detailing the package.
His proposals includes a list of ideas aimed directly at helping schools prepare for - and respond to - threats similar to the attack by the gunman at Sandy Hook, as well as a myriad of proposals aimed at bolstering mental health services, including new money for school counselors and training to help teachers identify students with mental illness early and get them the help they need. The plan calls for new federal investments in school safety and mental health counseling - two areas the Obama administration sought to trim in recent budget requests.
Much of Obama's to-do list includes some items that will require congressional funding and approval, but there are also a number of items that can be put in place right away, under executive order, without any further action from a Congress that has been paralyzed by partisan gridlock. For instance, the administration plans to immediately bolster incentives for schools to hire resource officers - police officers who can respond to threats immediately within a school - by giving priority to applicants who plan to use the U.S. Department of Justice's COPs grants for this purpose.
And the U.S. Department of Education, working with the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, will also develop - by May of this year - model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship, and institutions of higher education.
As part of that effort, the agencies will outline best practices when it comes to training teachers and students on the plans - something the federal government has identified as a gap when it comes to school safety procedures. While the students and teachers at Sandy Hook had practiced safety procedures just a month before the school was attacked by a lone gunman, that is not the norm, according to a 2010 survey cited by the White House. The survey found that while 84 percent of schools have a written plan in place to be used in the event of a shooting, only 52 percent of schools had actually drilled their students on the plan in the past year.
Obama has also charged U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius with launching a "national dialogue" on mental health issues. Many of the remaining executive actions deal specifically with gun violence, including making it easier for federal agencies to provide information needed for background checks.
In addition to the gun proposals which would require congressional action, the administration is also calling on Congress - where funding for new initiatives has been scarce - for new financing for programs involving mental health services, emergency planning, and schools.
For instance, the administration is aiming to create a new, $150 million Comprehensive School Safety Program intended to help school districts and law enforcement agencies hire 1,000 additional staff members, including school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors. The money could also be used to purchase or upgrade school safety equipment and train teams of staff members to assist students in a crisis. Under the proposal, the Justice Department would also distribute information to schools on how best to make use of school resource officers, including how they should work with different age groups of students.
And the administration wants lawmakers to allocate $30 million in one-time grants to states to help school districts develop and implement emergency management plans. In exchange, schools that receive federal funding for school safety would be required to have up-to-date emergency plans in place for all schools.
The administration is also seeking $50 million in new funding to help 8,000 schools put in place new strategies to improve school climate and discipline, such as consistent rules and rewards for good behavior. And the Education Department would help schools share best practices when it comes to school climate.
The legislative package also includes a package of proposals aimed at mental health, including a new initiative for ensuring that young people have access to such services. The initiative would be known as Project AWARE, which stands for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education. It would reach an estimated 750,000 young people, according to the administration, which notes that the massacre at Newtown and similar rampages in Aurora, Colo., Tuscon, Ariz., and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. were all perpetrated by young adults.
The package would include:
- $15 million to help teachers and other adults who work with youth provide "Mental Health First Aid," enabling them to identify students with mental health problems early and steer them toward treatment;
- $40 million to help districts work with law enforcement and other local agencies to coordinate services for students who demonstrate need;
- $25 million to help schools offer mental health services aimed at combating trauma, anxiety, and bolstering conflict resolution; and,
- $50 million in new money to train social workers, counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals. The money would provide stipends and tuition reimbursement for more than 5,000 new mental health professionals that want to work with young people, including in school settings.
•$25 million to finance new, state-based strategies to identify individuals ages 16 to 25 with mental health and substance abuse issues and get them the care they need.
"The president and vice president have proposed a broad set of recommendations, which I plan to review carefully," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Min., the chairman of the house Education and the Workforce Committee in a statement. And he said his committee would convene a hearing on school safety.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 policy and funding, said in a statement that he is "encouraged that this proposal recognizes that a comprehensive approach is needed - one that focuses on ensuring that our students get the services they need and addresses mental health services in our country with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention."
It's important to note that the administration hasn't always been supportive of federal funding targeted directed exclusively at hiring school counselors and school resources officers. Obama has proposed eliminating the $53 million Elementary and Secondary Counseling Program, in favor of a broader funding stream that schools could use for counselors, but also for activities aimed at improving school climate and safety.
The administration also proposed elimination of nearly $300 million aimed at school safety, known as the state Safe and Drug Free Schools grants, which helped schools pay for everything from metal detectors and security guards to drug-abuse prevention and conflict resolution training. After the program was scrapped, a smaller portion of money - currently nearly $65 million - was kept in place for national activities on school safety, but Obama has also sought to combine that with a broader funding stream aimed at school climate.
Want to watch the press conference for yourself? Take a look here:
Photos (from top): President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, left, hugs eight-year-old letter writer Grant Fritz during a news conference on proposals to reduce gun violence on Wednesday at the White House. (Susan Walsh/AP)
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses as he talks about proposals to reduce gun violence during an appearance Wednesday at the White House. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)