President Barack Obama's comprehensive plan to help the nation avert gun violence--unveiled just over a month after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School--includes actions the administration can take right away, such as crafting model school safety plans, and others, such as providing new money for broad school safety and mental-health programs, that will require coaxing a tight-fisted Congress.
The package, which the president announced last week at the White House, lays out a series of new and reinvigorated federal programs aimed at bolstering districts' emergency preparedness; helping schools hire safety personnel, social workers, and psychologists; and training teachers to better identify students with mental illness.
The Jan. 16 proposals, informed by the recommendations from an anti-violence task force that was led by Vice President Joe Biden and included U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, prominently include calls for new, stricter federal gun laws.
Mr. Obama is seeking a ban on military-style assault weapons; restrictions on the capacity of magazines; and a requirement for background checks for all gun sales, including weapons purchased at gun shows. Such proposals are likely to be a tough sell among federal lawmakers.
But mental health and school safety are also at the core of the package, which asks Congress for $150 million in new money to enable schools to enlist resource officers and mental-health professionals, $50 million for training new social workers, $30 million for grants to help districts revamp their emergency-preparedness plans, and $15 million in new funding to train teachers in "mental-health first aid."
Advocates see potential in many of the proposals but are hungry for additional details, such as how the money would be distributed across the country, how big the grants would be, what strings would be attached, and whether the funding would be a one-time boost or part of a sustainable effort.
"The way they describe emergency preparedness could mean 1,000 different things," said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety organization based in Juliette, Ga. "It's very difficult to evaluate [the possible effectiveness] of the programs at this stage."
Mr. Obama's plan to steer more federal attention--and resources--to mental health won praise from school district officials. They said mental-health services have often been first on the chopping block as districts have struggled to cut their budgets in a time of recession and sluggish growth.
But the effectiveness of the programs would depend largely on how they were structured and on how schools used the money, said Kathy Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, in Bethesda, Md.
"It would be unfortunate if what schools did was one-shot training that may or may not be sustainable over time," she said.
And she said that while helping teachers do a better job of spotting students with mental-health issues is "a very important prevention strategy," it's just one piece of the puzzle.
"There are signs that a young person is struggling, but they could just be having a bad day; it could have nothing to do with mental illness per se. It's not up to the teacher to determine that," she said, "it's up to them to put the student in touch with a counselor or school psychologist."
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