School Safety Legislation Recap

I was recently asked to testify before the Ohio House Education committee in regards to HB 334 which makes modifications to existing Ohio Revised Code language regarding the expulsion of students who pose a potential threat to the safety of the school. During my testimony and the statements of others both in support and opposition of the bill, a variety of school safety issues were brought to bear, including threat assessment management, mental health supports, and involvement of the juvenile justice system in school related safety issues.

This experience coincided nicely with a recent article in Education Week that examined the legislative activity in regards to school safety that has occurred throughout the United States in response to the tragedy in Sandy Hook. As we approach the one-year anniversary of this horrific event, let’s take a moment to examine what has occurred in the legislative arena in regards to school safety in the last 11 months.

The Education Week article categorized the more than 450 proposed laws and legislative revisions that have occurred throughout the United States by their nature and intent, as well as accounting for the disposition of these proposals.  There are some interesting trends in both the legislative proposals, and what emerged as actual law.

The most legislative proposals took place in the area of school emergency planning, with 159 proposals (more than 30% of all proposed bills) being put forth. These bills required schools to conduct emergency drills, update or create emergency plans, or dealt with emergency planning measures in some other fashion. As of October 2013, only 25 of the bills have actually been signed into law (about 16%) with 90 proposals still pending (57%).

More than 18% of all proposed school safety legislation involved police in schools with 82 bills dealing with a police presence in schools (i.e. increasing police in schools etc.).  Only 4 of these bills (less than 4%) had been signed into law by October with more than 50 proposals (60%) still pending.

Interestingly, the seemingly dichotomous issues of school climate/student supports and arming school employees had an equal number of proposed bills (65 each), constituting slightly more than 14% of all legislative proposals. While most educators would agree that providing mental health supports and improving school climate is an effective preventative measure, the more extreme (and reactive) measure of arming employees had a slightly higher rate of being signed into law with 5 measures (8%) passing, leaving 31 proposed bills (48%) still pending. The proposed bills providing mental health services, counseling, or addressing school climate issues were signed into law only 4 times (6%) with 44 measures still pending (68%).

In addition to the proposals for arming employees, the divisive and diverse opinions on guns are also epitomized in the legislative proposals that dealt with the polar opposite notions of gun control and loosening gun restrictions in schools.  There were more proposed bills (56 or 12% of all proposals) to loosen or end restrictions on bringing guns onto the school grounds than there were to changes regulations governing firearms such as magazine size or sales restrictions. These gun control measures constituted 44 of the proposed bills (less than 10%). When it came to actual passage, however, more gun control measures were made into law (6 or 14%) than the easing of school gun restrictions, where only 5 measures passed, (9%).

The remaining legislative measures were 62 proposed bills regarding building safety upgrades – 14% of all legislation. These proposed bills provided money for, or addressed building security improvements such as metal detectors and alarms. Only 8 of these proposals were signed into law, (about 13% of the proposed measures).

So, let’s recap – when examining purely those legislative measure that actually were signed into law, the most action was taken in the area of emergency planning (16% of all signed bills).  We would all agree that measures on the proactive side of things – drills, crisis plans and other planning activities makes sense. From there things get a bit more dicey.  The proactive, researched-based best practice of providing mental health supports and creating a positive school climate received legislative action much less frequently, with only 6% of the proposed bills passing. Compare this with the 13% passage rate for safety upgrades or hardware purchases such as metal detectors, buzzer systems and the like.

This examination is not intended to point fingers at the activity or type of legislation; rather it illustrates the diverse issues and opinions that revolve around the question of “What can we do to make our schools more safe?” Not surprisingly, there is no quick fix or easy answer.  School crisis preparation, and the legislative requirements that it engenders, must focus equally on both prevention and response with an all hazards view – not just an emphasis on active shooter events. Maybe the biggest insight in the analysis of the legislation is not what was proposed, but rather what wasn’t – putting adequate and appropriate training in the hands of educators. Perhaps that central issue should receive some legislative attention.

For a more in-depth look at the proposed bills both by state, geographic region, and the type of legislation, click here.