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Lawmakers take a multi-step approach to improve school safety

Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, speaks with the media before a March 6 hearing on her bill, HF3320, allowing districts to fund and prioritize safety and security upgrades in Minnesota schools. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla. has encouraged many lawmakers across the country and in Minnesota to revive and rehash various proposals, from increasing mental health resources to new gun restrictions. While most agree that something must be done, finding a solution that pleases everyone and results in safer schools remains a challenge. 

Safe and Secure Schools Act

Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled his proposal Wednesday.

The so-called “Safe and Secure Schools Act” would provide $15.9 million for improvements to school building safety and  intervention programs for students who are exhibiting red flags.

The proposal also includes $5 million for school-based grants that would provide mental health services to students who need additional support.

“It’s obviously really important that we do better as a society at identifying people who are in need,” Dayton said. “We have a big task to try to identify people before they commit these terrible acts and get them the help that they need.”

Dayton also outlined several gun measures he’d like to see the Legislature act on, including age restrictions, requiring background checks any time a firearm is exchanged and clarifying bump fire stock bans. However, he left them out of his proposal to avoid a partisan showdown on the issue.

 “The House and Senate leaders, Republican leaders, both said that they’re not interested in changing the state laws in any of these regards,” Dayton said. “I don’t want these measures —while I support them — to prevent this other legislation from moving forward.”

Dayton proposes paying for the plan with a portion of the $329 million projected budget surplus that the Minnesota Management and Budget forecasted last month.

Freeing up existing funds

Dayton’s proposal joins others already in motion around the Capitol.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), which is meant to free up funding for schools to make safety improvements, was held over Tuesday by the House Education Finance Committee for possible omnibus inclusion. There is no Senate companion bill.

HF3320 would allow districts to reallocate their long-term facilities maintenance revenue to finance safety upgrades as they see fit.

Long-term facilities maintenance revenue is used for general upkeep, like roof and floor replacement, as well as accessibility improvements and asbestos removal. Currently, it doesn’t allow for new construction or substantial remodeling.

Loon’s bill would change that, allowing districts to make safety improvements such as installing secure entrances and cameras, and updating public announcement systems and emergency communication devices.

“I am not really in a position to tell every school how to best to manage their facilities,” Loon said. “Those are local decisions best made at that level. But what we can do — is with the resources they have — make sure that they have that flexibility.”

Dave Moredock, coordinator of Risk Management for Osseo Area Schools, said the bill would be a step in the right direction in helping them meet safety improvement needs.

“We know what we need to do to improve safety and security,” Moredock said. “We also know that in order to pay for this essential work, we need more flexible funding mechanisms authorized by the Legislature, because those safety and security investments are needed now.”

Brad Lundell, executive director of Schools for Equity in Education, is also supportive of the bill, but emphasized facility security is only one part of the equation. He said districts need more support staff in the schools, and a separate revenue stream dedicated to school improvements.

Educators respond

Teachers who testified during the hearing shared a common theme: There’s not a one-step solution to ending school violence. Instead, they suggested a multi-tiered approach, stressing the need for additional counselors and mental health professionals in schools, smaller class sizes and additional professional development.

Don Sinner, a middle school teacher and president of Education Minnesota Lakeville, said teachers don’t want to be armed with weapons; they want to be armed with the tools to meet the socio-emotional needs, as well as the academic needs of their students.

“Arm us with lower classes sizes,” Sinner said. “I don’t know any teacher that would pass up the opportunity to have a manageable class size that would allow educators to reach every single student in a meaningful way. That would allow them to handle behavior issues proactively with skill and compassion.”

While not opposed to additional resources for securing schools, Sinner and other teachers said that approach does have its drawbacks and questioned its potential effectiveness.

“I’ve been an educator for 33 years and I’ll tell you this, arming the teachers and fortifying our school actually isn’t the answer,” Sinner said.  “The Newtown, Conn., shooter blasted his way through a hardened entry. People get past guards all the time with weaponry into our schools. More stringent security measures don’t stop school shootings.”

Ultimately, both Dayton and Loon said that their proposals are the tip of the iceberg in terms of meeting the safety needs of students and staff, and encouraged other lawmakers to come forward with additional ideas and bills.

The bill I brought to committee today, and we laid down, I consider that a baseline for what I hope will become a school safety package,” Loon said. “I hope other members will bring their ideas too, so we can be very comprehensive in our approach.” 

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