Lawmakers look to harden school security

Lawmakers look to harden school security

(Calif.) Lawmakers are calling for expanded police presence in schools, district-wide safety plans and facility security updates in the wake of yet another school shooting and increasing threats of violence against students.

Both AB 1747 and AB 2067 passed the Assembly Education committee last week. The first requires schools to develop safety plans in order to prepare and respond to violent incidents on or near school sites, and the second calls for districts to place at least one armed school resource officer in every school.

A third bill, AB 3205, would require schools seeking money to modernize their facilities to include in their plans the installation of locks that allow doors to classrooms to be locked from the inside. The bill has been referred to the education committee.

“The California Constitution guarantees children the right to attend public schools which are safe, secure and peaceful, and we are falling short of keeping our children safe,” Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona and author of AB 1747 told the panel.

“Nobody wants to think of a world where our children are not safe at school, but unfortunately, recent incidents in Parkland, Marshall County, Kentucky, and here in Rancho Tehama have shown us that we must be prepared for the worst,” he said. “It is our responsibility to provide a safe environment for our children and staff at our schools.”

As both the number of violent incidents and threats of violence have increased, especially in recent months, so have the calls for reform. Since last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people died, about 50 threats of violence against schools have been made each day on average, compared to an average of about 10 per day in years past, according to the Educators School Safety Network.

The national organization which tracks school threats says California leads the list of schools that have had an increase in threats, which states including Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Illinois also seeing sharp jumps.

Marking the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, students from nearly 3,000 schools according to USA Today walked out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes–one minute for each person killed at the Florida high school–with many calling for legislative reforms to end gun violence.

And this past weekend, an estimated 200,000 students and supporters descended on Washington D.C. for the March for Our Lives rally–a demonstration for stricter gun control–with similar events seen in other cities throughout the country.

In addition to the recent threats against schools made in the cities of Santa Cruz, Inglewood, and Whittier, California, lawmakers cited last year’s shootings on the in Rancho Tehama Reserve as a key motivator for their bills. In that case, school staff at Rancho Tehama Elementary School heard gunfire near the school and quickly began locking down the campus. Their swift action is credited by law enforcement with saving the lives of many children that day, and school leaders have cited regular lockdown drills as a major reason staff and students were prepared.

Unfortunately, not all schools in California are likely to be as prepared.

According to a state audit conducted last year, schools face challenges in preparing and responding to incidents of school violence, including active shootings. Auditors found that state law does not require schools to include procedures for responding to active shooter events in their school safety plans and that, as a result, too many schools failed to include such provisions.

AB 1747 would require every school district and county office of education to conduct at least one active shooter drill each year, ensuring that school resource officers and school-employed mental health professionals be involved in the planning and implementation. The bill also directs the State Justice Department and the Department of Education to provide guidance on best practices for safety plans and ensure plans are regularly updated.

While lawmakers and other stakeholder groups in attendance appeared to agree across the board that additional preparation can only be beneficial, AB 2067 received some pushback.

The bill, authored by Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, requires districts to ensure that there is at least one armed school resource officer present at the school at all times when children are on campus.

Kathy Sher of the American Civil Liberties Union told lawmakers that while the bill is well-intentioned, putting guns in schools in the hands of school resource officers or anyone else will make schools less safe, not more so. She also cited incidents in states including California, Texas, and both North and South Carolina, in which peace officers were found to have acted violently toward students for infractions as minor as refusing to put away a cellphone.

And in a Monterey high school just this month, she noted that a teacher–who is also a reserve police officer–accidentally discharged his gun inside a classroom during a public safety lesson, injuring one student.

Gallagher, on the other hand, pointed to an incident in Maryland, also this month, in which a school resource officer was instrumental in stopping a high school student walked into a hallway and shot two students. The officer reportedly responded to the scene in less than a minute and confronted the shooter in a move authorities say saved lives.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach and chair of the education committee, said he thought AB 2067 was a good bill, and that especially in larger schools, having a school resource officer is vital to ensuring a safe school environment.

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, meanwhile, questioned how Gallagher would ensure his bill provided safeguards to ensure that officers placed in schools would not be used to address student misbehavior, and that they wouldn’t disproportionality target minority communities–something that federal data has shown occurs in school resource officer programs throughout the country.

“I think there has to be that level of oversight and accountability so those who don’t have the trust and the faith that this can work can know that there are structures in place to help it to work,” Thurmond said. “If it works, it works, and what I hope happens is that strong relationships get built like in community policing–but until that happens I think there’s a fair expectation that there should be built-in structures to ensure that there are oversights to protect against abuse and misuse that could result in the criminalization of children, the mistreatment of children, or the harm of children.”

Gallagher said the bill is a still a work in progress, but that he would continue to work with stakeholders to make sure it addresses such concerns.

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