News Column

Obama Presses School Safety, Mental-Health Initiatives

Jan. 23, 2013

Alyson Klein

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."

Districts Hopeful

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."

U.S. schools have been the scene of a series of deadly shootings by students over the years. At Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Conn., however, a 20-year-old intruder was responsible for the Dec. 14 attack.

It's hard to estimate how much would be covered by the proposed funding for the president's programs, ranging from $15 million to $150 million--small sums by federal budget standards.

As of last week, it was also unclear whether the money would be distributed by formula or through competitive awards, and how large the grants would be.

While the White House estimates that the resources could put 1,000 new mental-health and school safety professionals in schools, Secretary Duncan acknowledged in a call with reporters last week that the funding--if approved by Congress--was unlikely to be enough to put a social worker in place in every school that needs one.

"There's much greater interest in this than we'll have resources available," he said. That is typical, he added, of initiatives aimed at combating major societal problems.

For their part, district officials said they would welcome the new resources, even if the aid was relatively limited.

"I think it will help even if it means just one extra school resource officer and one extra school social worker," said Audrey Coaston-Shelton, the lead school psychologist for the 34,000-student Cincinnati school district.

But she said that mental-health staff members who can be in the school building on a regular basis and form a bond with students are likely to have more impact than "somebody who comes in on Wednesday and a few kids disappear into their office."

Many of the mental-health initiatives put forward by President Obama in his plan, including the teacher-training initiative, would be housed at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Capitol Hill Reception

It's unclear how the new mental-health programs--and other proposals that require new spending--will go over with Congress. House Republicans particularly have been reluctant to add to the government's bottom line and are already headed for a showdown with the White House over automatic spending cuts to a range of domestic and military programs, set to kick in later this year.

For now, Republicans aren't tipping their hand on the education-related proposals.

"The president and vice president have proposed a broad set of recommendations, which I plan to review carefully," U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. And he said his committee would convene a hearing on school safety.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the Senate panels that deal with K-12 policy and funding, was more enthusiastic, particularly about the focus on mental health.

"I'm encouraged that this proposal recognizes that a comprehensive approach is needed--one that focuses on ensuring that our students get the services they need and addresses mental-health services in our country with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention," he said in a statement.

Already Under Way

Some portions of the newly announced plan have already been pushed through using Mr. Obama's executive muscle. The president has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to help schools hire additional resource officers--police officers who can respond to threats immediately within a school--by giving priority to applicants who plan to use the Justice Department's community-policing grants for that purpose.

And, under his orders, the U.S. Department of Education, working with the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, will also develop, by May of this year, model emergency-response plans for schools, houses of worship, and institutions of higher education.

As part of that effort, the agencies will outline best practices for training teachers and students on the plans, something the federal government has identified as a gap when it comes to school safety procedures.

While the students and teachers at Sandy Hook had practiced safety procedures in the months before the lone gunman's attack, that is not the norm, according to a 2010 survey cited by the White House. The survey found that while 84 percent of schools have a written plan in place to be used in the event of a shooting, only 52 percent of schools had drilled their students on the plan in the past year.

Mr. Dorn of Safe Havens International views the concept of model plans with some caution.

"If you take these things and just print them and use them" without talking to local law enforcement or thinking about the local context, they won't be as effective, he said.

And almost no policy will eliminate the possibility of another school shooting.

"I just don't see that anything is going to be a sure-fire bet to prevention," Mr. Dorn said. "There is no magic solution to make these attacks go away."

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Source: (c) 2013 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)