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Federal Wish List for Improving School Safety Relies on Congress

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With or without new funding, federal agencies are working on a number of initiatives to help schools improve safety on the heels of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., officials from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Department said today. But it will be up to Congress to determine whether some of the most ambitious plans will become reality.

One of the things that schools can expect is guidance from the Educational Facilities Clearinghouse on low-cost ways schools can improve security, "that wouldn't make them fortresses," said David Esquith, the Education Department's director of the office of safe and healthy students. He spoke at a session today that was part of the Council of the Great City Schools annual legislative conference.

In that same vein, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is developing a guide about school infrastructure. The agency, which has crafted plans on securing other types of buildings, such as utility plants, is translating its expertise into security for schools, said Sandra Webb, the deputy director of the Justice Department's office of community-oriented policing services.

And by May, the Education Department will provide a guide for schools that offers model emergency plans and advice on how to implement them, Esquith said. The department's Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools technical assistance center is also available to districts who need help with planning, although REMS grants for individual districts evaporated a while ago. (As a side note, I can't say much about what the REMS center offers to districts, other than the materials posted on its website. When I spoke with the center recently looking for information about what guidance districts are given about school resource officers, an employee of the center said its staff members cannot talk with the press. An Education Department spokeswoman said "the role of school officers is determined at the school level" and that the center wouldn't have much else to say.)

Today, Esquith did say that a majority of schools have emergency plans, but some schools may be too quick in drilling students and staff on what they should do in an emergency prematurely. "That's scaring a lot of people," he said. "People need to be well-trained before you drill."

Esquith also repeated a lot of President Barack Obama's plans for improving school safety and security, unveiled in January, noting that many of the initiatives require Congress to find a way to pay for them. The president wants more money for school resource officers, guidance counselors, and other staff, as schools see fit, along with money to help schools develop emergency plans. In Obama's plan, the General Services Administration would help schools buy new safety equipment affordably. He also wants more money to detect and treat mental illness in young people.

Obama has also proposed money that schools could use to help improve school climate. Esquith noted a landmark report by the Secret Service on school shootings from a decade ago that showed how important school climate is in preventing acts of violence at school.

"If students have a trusting relationship with adults in the school, they are more likely to tell them about something impending," Esquith said. "This notion of school climate and deterrence of violence is a significant one."

He said his agency will provide school districts with tools to assess school climate, if they wish to do so. The previous iteration of the office of safe and healthy students, the office of safe and drug-free schools, pushed the improvement of school climate.

Over the last few years, some federal programs that address school safety and security, including one that helps schools practice and hone their emergency plans, haven't been funded. Justice Department programs that provided money for school resource officers have changed a lot, too, said the Justice Department's Webb said, including with the elimination of a training requirement for school administrators and officers. Those training programs should resume, if Congress provides the money for SROs that Obama wants, she said. But with Congress in a state of perpetual nonmotion, however, who knows whether the proposals will get anywhere.

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