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Trump School Safety Commission Explores Privacy Laws, School Resource Officers

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Educators' fear of overstepping federal student privacy laws can make it tougher for law enforcement and schools to share information that could prevent a potential school shooting, advocates told President Donald Trump's School Safety Commission at the panel's latest hearing, held in Washington on Thursday.

Clarence Cox III, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told the commission that fear of overstepping privacy laws can be impediment to information sharing.

"For law enforcement, this is one of the greatest hindrances facing intelligence gathering," he said.

And Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association, argued that local districts would benefit from being able to use their discretion in deciding when to share information.  

"Collaboration and communication with local law enforcement agencies is an essential part of these efforts. That is why school boards would benefit from eliminating barriers that hinder the collaboration of agencies providing services to children," Negrón said.

He added that: "Local educators know and care about their students and their school communities. They know the school climate, community concerns, the history of student interactions, and their needs. They are in a unique position to share information when necessary to maintain a safe school environment."

The panel has heard in the past from student privacy rights experts, but none spoke at Thursday's hearing.

The commission, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, was created in response to the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. thursday's hearing was one of the rare meetings that involved all four members of the commission: DeVos; Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services; Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security; and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. This hearing, which focused on "proactively protecting students," was organized by the Justice Department.

Sessions seemed sympathetic to the idea that the feds could tweak—or at least clarify—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act—so that educators and law enforcement don't have to worry about collaborating to head off a possible violent incident. Sessions said the 2004 approval of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act gave more discretion to educators in helping students in special education. He thinks that might the right strategy for FERPA.

"Maybe we can do something similar here, give more bright line approval of certain policies," Sessions said.

The commission is not exploring the role guns play in school shootings, with a few limited exceptions, to the chagrin of advocates. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, has questioned whether the National Rifle Association has an outsized role in guiding the commission's work. DeVos has denied that's the case.

Cox made it clear that he doesn't think an idea floated by Trump to combat school shootings—arming teachers—makes any sense.

"Teachers are already overtasked  ... That would be a very bad idea," Cox said. For one thing, the "cost would be astronomical." He said it could cost more than $70 million nationally to train educators to use firearms. "And that doesn't include the gun itself. That's just the training."

The commission heard some big support for school resource officers—or SROs—is no surprise, given that more than half the panelists were SROs, came from school districts that use them, or organizations that represent them.

"Our kids view our SROS as just another person talking to them, not a cop," said Don Hulin, the principal of Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala. Having SROs makes it "much easier to deal with potential flashpoints of violence before they spill into a school." Rudy Perez, the vice president of the Los Angeles School Police Association, concurred, and suggested the feds kick in more resources to support SROs. 

School Discipline Policies

The commission is charged with deciding whether to scrap, keep, or tweak Obama-era guidance putting schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

Judy Kidd, the president of the North Carolina Classroom Teachers Association, a political organization for educators meant to provide a counterbalance to the teachers' unions, said she was all for ditching the guidance.

"The schools can be the repository of some student criminals," she said.

Separate from her work at the commission, DeVos has heard from both fans and opponents of the guidance. So far, no one supportive of keeping it on the books has been asked to testify before the commission. But a number of advocates asked the department to keep it on the books during one of the commission's "listening sessions" in Washington, which was open to members of the public.

Want more on school police? Check out this story from my colleague Evie Blad, on a survey that found one in five school resource officers don't think their schools are prepared for a shooting

A note surrounded by candles is seen during a vigil at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 15.

--Brynn Anderson/AP


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