A panel of school safety, climate, and security experts quizzed by a House committee today largely agreed that schools need more counselors, better communication between adults on campus and students, and additional, thoughtful emergency planning.
One thing they don't need, according to the experts: Teachers carrying guns to class.
In a hearing today to discuss needed changes to school safety following the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December, experts emphasized the need for more resources for preventive measures. But when polled by Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-New Jersey, about whether arming teachers is one route to improving school safety, every panelist answered with a resounding no.
School climate guru David Osher of the American Institutes for Research called the idea "very dangerous," and Frederick Ellis, who handles security in Fairfax County schools in Virginia said, "It's a very risky proposition, and I would not be favor of it."
The panelists repeatedly referenced a need for improved communication between students and staff and addressing situations that don't escalate to violent school shootings but are far more common.
"The real challenge in schools is not the low-incidence and very traumatic events we want to prevent," Osher said. "It's low-level aggression that takes place persistently."
Combating that, and ultimately preventing more serious events, begins with forming trusting relationships between students and adults, especially school resource officers and counselors.
Student-Adult Relationships Critical
In West Paducah, Ky., in 1997, before a school shooting that left three students dead, "eight kids saw the guns before the shooting," said Bill Bond, the principal at Heath High School at the time. He now helps other schools wade through the recovery following tragedies. "They did not tell," he told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "Information's the most valuable thing we can have in school."
One way to gather that information from students is through school resource officers who are well-trained in how to build relationships with students, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
"They certainly should be a trusted adult a student can come to for information and guidance," he said—making school resource officers very different from an armed guard or police officer who hasn't been trained to work in a school. "The relationship issue is so huge, you can get more information from a student when you have a positive relationship with them than when you interrogate them."
His organization estimates that only about 10 percent of U.S. schools have resource officers. He supports adding officers—as long as they are well-trained in working with students and school administrators.
Counselors should also be more available to hear out students' concerns, said Vincent Pompei, the president-elect of the California Association of School Counselors and a counselor in the Val Verde district.
But "caseloads have grown so much, counselors have time to put out fires when we should be preventing them in the first place," he said. While recommended student-counselor ratios are 250 to 1, he said, in California it is often more than 1,000 students per counselor, and the nationwide average is about 500 to 1. (My colleague Liana Heitin delved into these staggering workloads in a story for this year's edition of Quality Counts.)
"The resulting loss of services will have lifelong consequences," said Pompei, who said he struggled through school himself and had no trusted adult to turn to or who intervened on his behalf, even when they witnessed the harassment he experienced. While mass shootings are rare, thousands of students experience aggression, thoughts of suicide, troubled home lives, and similar situations daily and need someone to turn to. And they shouldn't have to wait two or three days for a counselor to see them.
"If you ask kids to give you information and you don't follow up on that information you will never get any information from that child again," Bond said. "We don't have those resources in place to follow up" when students do share concerns.
At the end of the two-hour hearing, committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., suggested a training program so that school administrators and teachers "appear trusting" to students.
"I can't decide if it's ridiculous, smart, or both," tweeted Sasha Pudelski, government affairs manager for the American Association of School Administrators, in response to Kline's suggestion.
But more school resource officers, more counselors, and better, fluid, emergency planning, which Ellis and Bond recommended, cost money. Ellis pointed out, however, that grants for emergency planning once provided by the U.S. Department of Education have been eliminated. And the federal government is currently grappling with how to handle automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that could set in as soon as this week.
Although addressing gun control is out of the House Education Committee's purview some of the committee members said any changes to school security would be meaningless without gun control legislation. In the Senate today, the Judiciary Committee was tackling just that.
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PHOTO: Neil Heslin, the father of a six-year-old boy who was slain in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, holds a picture of himself with his late son, Jesse, while testifying on Capitol Hill on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP)