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Obama's School Safety Proposals Could Undermine Instruction

Well, in barely a month, the post-Newtown solemnity has given way to front page stories about whether a star Notre Dame linebacker knew that his fatally ill online girlfriend was a hoax. This rapid return to Kardashian-style shallowness was to be expected. Less expected, unlike previous shootings, is that Newtown has actually fueled an ambitious agenda of proposed legislative and executive actions. Now, I've no expertise or desire to weigh in on the merits of the various proposals on gun control or mental health. Personally, I'd like to see restrictions on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles, but I'm also respectful of the expansive wording of the second amendment--so I'll leave those debates to others.

That said, many proposals on the table seem likely to impact schools and educators. Tragedies or seeming crises make policymakers feel they have to do something--even if it proves ineffectual or counterproductive. In any number of cases, one response has been to order educators to do more - without much worrying about distractions, burdens, or the tradeoffs. Over the decades, schools have been asked to tackle everything from oral hygiene to condom distribution, and to train (at least some) staff in everything from emergency evacuation to administering insulin. Each mandate is reasonable enough, but the result is that teachers and school staff are asked to do dozens of things--and each requires little slivers of occasional training, paperwork, and monitoring. The funny thing is that everyone then bemoans this kind of fragmentation, and laments that teachers don't get enough serious or sustained training when it comes to teaching and learning.

In scanning President Obama's raft of proposals and executive actions on Wednesday, it looks like he's pushing an array of well-intentioned, largely symbolic requirements and initiatives that may or may not have had any impact in Newtown in response to a freakishly rare occurrence. The President proposes to train 14,000 school officials and law enforcement officers in how to handle active shooter situations. I don't know how much time or energy the president has in mind. But here's the dilemma: a dollop of training is unlikely to make any difference and a serious chunk of training means we're focusing on a scenario with lightning-strike likelihood rather than on things that are more likely to save and improve the lives of millions of kids every day.

Similarly, the president wants to require that schools receiving federal funds for safety develop and practice emergency plans. While more than 80% of schools already have response plans for a shooting, the White House lamented that only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year. Though these drills may be a nice idea in theory, they can also create chaos, breed mischief, disrupt carefully planned lessons, and consume thirty minutes or more of instructional time for every student in the building. For all that, the likelihood that any given school will employ its plan is infinitesimal, and the odds that anything short of routine practice will actually result in saved lives is modest at best.

The president proposes a tiny smattering of dollars, $15 million, to fund "mental health first aid" training for teachers and others who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness (this is another symbolic figure--it works out to perhaps $150 for each of the nation's schools.) Once again, it's likely educators will get a few hours of desultory training, which will be just enough to waste their time without making a difference. Or, if they actually get the training and support they need to do this well (with the $150 per school!), it'll distract from training in their core work of preparing instruction, crafting assessments, monitoring student learning, and so forth.

Meanwhile, in a time of lean budgets, the President proposes hundreds of millions in scattered new spending for initiatives that strike me as mostly symbolic. He suggests $150 million to place an additional 1,000 support staff in schools (that's one for every hundred schools in the nation--not sure how this is expected to much matter.) The President calls for $50 million to fund 8,000 school plans to improve school climate (though this turns out to be just $6,000 a school, even if every dollar gets passed to the school level). I'm not at all sure that this will yield brilliant new thinking or matter much at all, other than creating extra paperwork, meetings, and opportunities for small-dollar consultants.

There's a good chance that many of the aforementioned measures will pass. The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan notes, "Overall, few Americans seem to disagree with the idea that school safety must be beefed up." The risk is that, in a well-intentioned push to do something, policymakers will treat educator time and scarce funds like disposable tissue.

Now, let's be clear. In no way, shape, or form am I denigrating efforts to make schools safer. School safety is the top priority for just about any parent, and that's as it should be. And, obviously, feeling safe can help kids learn. But it's not clear that all these new rules and mandates will actually prevent school violence. After all, 34 states already passed anti-bullying bills in 2010 or 2011, 45 states have states prohibiting cyberbullying, and every state already has laws on the books about violence prevention in schools. Outside of the typical happy results for this or that pilot program, I've yet to see anybody make the case that these programs work as intended at scale. That's important, because there are the usual questions about how good ideas play out by the time they're turned into bureaucratic mandates.

Last year, in response to the suicide of the 18-year-old gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the New Jersey state legislature passed "The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights." Observing the aftermath, one school anti-bullying coordinator told the Newark Star-Ledger that the bill "added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us." And, in surveying the effects of the law, the Star-Ledger reported that the reforms have "helped some kids" but also imposed costs of up to $80,000 per school district for training alone and consumes about 200 hours per month of staff time in each of the state's 600 districts. The paper noted that some educators say that the effect is to take staff "away from things such as substance-abuse prevention and college and career counseling."

What happened in Newtown on December 14th was horrific. Policymakers are to be lauded for seeking ways to stop anything similar from ever happening again. But it's vital, in responding to a tragedy that may strike a single one of our 100,000 schools perhaps twice a decade, that we maintain a sense of proportion when devising broad new directives for school practices, spending, or how educators use their time.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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