Gun bill expands school safety spending beyond security

gun bill expands school safety spending beyond security
© Provided by Roll Call Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a lead negotiator on the bipartisan gun safety package, speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway Wednesday.

Mill Creek Township School District in Pennsylvania plans to upgrade its surveillance cameras, radios and a door monitoring system with a $500,000 federal grant, one of hundreds awarded across the country over the past four years as part of a $1 billion program Congress passed to address school violence.

But Superintendent Ian Roberts said the grant won’t cover upgrades like security vestibules on its more than 40 entrances at 10 schools, and the district can’t afford that immediately. “From an infrastructure standpoint, there’s still some things that are lacking in this and other districts,” Roberts said.

Congress now appears poised to spend even more to bolster physical security at local schools in response to a recent wave of mass shootings, although Democrats and some public health experts have doubted the effectiveness of those measures in stopping active shooters.

A bipartisan Senate bill unveiled Tuesday includes $300 million for school security grants, including $100 million for a program that can be used to “harden” schools meant to make them more difficult to target. The Senate is expected to have a procedural vote on the bill Thursday.

But this time, the legislation also includes much larger investments in the kind of community mental health resources that experts said may help prevent mass shootings, such as the one last month in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed.

Experts like Odis Johnson, executive director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said research has shown that even as school security spending has increased, so have school shootings.

“This whole idea that we can only focus on the school, and think that a school can do it all, is just not going to stop active shooters,” Johnson said. “There’s not enough Plexiglas, law enforcement, barricades, locks, bars on doors, none of that is going to stop an active shooter from gaining entry into a school.”

‘Harden’ schools

Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the lead negotiator for his party on the latest Senate bill, have argued that Congress must include funds to increase physical security at schools. In his floor speech Tuesday announcing the bill text, he referred to reports that the shooter in Uvalde entered through an unlocked door at the school.

“That’s an obvious vulnerability,” Cornyn said in a floor speech. “Schools need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which means evaluating physical security measures, reviewing current protocol, adopting best practices.”

Republicans have broadly pushed for closer ties between schools and law enforcement in response to shootings, measures that left Democrats less than enthusiastic.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the Senate floor in May that “hardening” schools “would have done nothing to prevent this shooting,” since there were guards and police officers already at the school when the shooter showed up.

“The shooter got past all of them with two assault weapons that he purchased. They couldn’t stop him,” Schumer said.

One of the Democratic negotiators, Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he would be willing to “vote for some things that harden our schools that make me a little uncomfortable, frankly, if Republicans are willing to vote to tighten up the nation’s firearms laws in a way that they have been unwilling to do previously.”

During his floor speech Tuesday announcing the text of the bill, Murphy emphasized the bipartisan compromises to provide more resources for mental health treatment nationwide and new restrictions on straw purchases and gun trafficking.

Other resources

The funds for school security in the bill are dwarfed by the several billion dollars invested in mental health resources, including $2 billion that could be used for school-based mental health care.

Backers of the bill emphasized the funds would be put toward mental health care nationwide, with Cornyn calling it “the single largest investment in community-based mental health treatment in American history.”

Murphy emphasized the resources it would provide for school-based mental health treatment and support for violence interrupter programs such as those in Hartford, Conn.

“We have significant new funding in this bill for school-based health centers to make sure that kids are better served, especially those kids who are in crisis,” Murphy said.

Johnson said broader efforts to include more mental health resources can help reduce the chances of a shooting on campus.

“We should make sure they have mental health resources, social-emotional supports, teachers trained in trauma-informed practices, restorative justice practices, these are the things that schools can do that is in their control,” Johnson said.

Grants spent

If passed, the legislative focus would be a turn from the federal government’s approach so far. Congress passed the program providing Mill Creek’s funding, the STOP School Violence Act, as part of an omnibus appropriations bill in 2018. The $1 billion, decadelong program was the only step Congress took following a mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2017.

Overall, the federal government has announced almost $400 million in grants, which have gone to state departments of education and local communities. The Olean City School District in New York put its $425,000 grant toward an upgraded security system and new camera system. Wisconsin’s Southern Door County School District plans to use its $156,000 grant for classroom evacuation and lockdown kits, facility door alarms and bus surveillance equipment.

The federal grants layer on top of state school safety grants. A $69,000 school safety grant from the Texas government went to Uvalde Independent School District, home to Robb Elementary School, the site of the shooting last month.

Texas state documents did not list the purpose of the grant, but a district security document lists measures such as a security vestibule at a district high school and a threat reporting system and cameras at junior and high schools.

The current federal program works through two avenues at the Justice Department: the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Community Oriented Policing Services. Some COPS grants, such as the one Mill Creek received, can be used for schools’ physical security.

In the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, The Justice Department awarded about 150 COPS grants. Not all the recipients were school districts, and the districts that did receive the grants represent a fraction of schools across the country.

Backers of the program, including former COPS office executive director Phil Keith, said it was immensely popular among school districts.

Keith acknowledged the program has its limitations, though. Small security failures, like cafeteria workers opening a door to help ventilate a hot kitchen, can defeat the purpose of millions of dollars in investments.

“The rule is: If you have kids in that classroom, you lock the door. Except when teachers want to smoke, they may give students assignments, take a break, go out and leave the door open. It happens all the time,” Keith said.

Last resort

Experts such as Johnson and Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University, said those security measures come into play only when every other part of the school system has failed.

“If someone has it in their mind to shoot up a school and die, then no amount of physical security will deter them,” Khubchandani said.

Khubchandani argued that $1 million spent to increase school security may be better spent on school counseling or other resources to help students more broadly. He likened “hardening” schools to treating a heart attack with medication, instead of recognizing the risk years ago and treating it with diet and exercise.

“What we have in America is an endemic disease. We don’t have the right prescription, we just prescribe something to make ourselves feel good,” Khubchandani said.

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