With new federal and state reports on school security now public, Georgia lawmakers are looking to spotlight measures in 2019 to address the safety of students and faculty on campuses.
“School safety will be a very high priority, and rightfully so,” Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said. “We’ve seen violence and death and destruction in school settings as a national trend.”
President Donald Trump’s school safety commission on Tuesday made recommendations in a report that lays out dozens of suggestions to improve safety in America’s schools.
Trump created the commission in March following a Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 students and staff members.
The report covers areas ranging from mental health and cyberbullying to the regulation of guns and violent video games. On the question of whether schools should arm teachers and other employees, the panel said it should be left to states and schools to decide, but the panel noted that schools can use certain federal grants for firearms training.
“Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone everywhere,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a call with reporters. “Local problems need local solutions. This report seeks to identify options that policymakers should explore.”
Along with DeVos, the safety commission includes leaders of the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. They issued their findings after more than a dozen meetings with teachers, parents, students, mental health experts, police and survivors of school shootings.
While the report doesn’t encourage schools to arm teachers or staff, it says they’re allowed to, and it points them to a Justice Department grant that can be used for training.
Still, the group underscored that having a police officer who works in the school is the best option to respond to violence.
Among its other proposals, the commission urged states to adopt laws allowing “extreme risk protection orders,” or court orders that temporarily restrict access to firearms for people who are found to pose risks to themselves or others. The group recommended against raising the minimum age to buy a firearm, generally 18 in most states, saying there’s no evidence it would reduce killings.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Senate School Safety Study Committee released its recommendations in November after a series of public meetings across the state in the summer and fall.
In its report, the committee said it explored “possible programs, solutions and safeguards to strengthen school safety in three key areas: the prevention of emergencies at or attacks on our schools from occurring in the first place; the physical security of school buildings, facilities, and buses themselves in the case of an actual emergency; and the responses of school authorities, state and local law enforcement and emergency services personnel, students, teachers and staff to active emergencies should they occur on campus.”
The committee recommends increased state mental health counselors and allowing local school systems to use special purpose local option sales tax revenues to fund the hiring of additional social workers or counselors (SPLOST funds are restricted to facilities improvements and other capital development projects).
The committee also calls for a “data-sharing system by which Georgia’s schools, social services, and law enforcement agencies are able to coordinate together to create, share, and curate secure individual student profiles throughout a student’s educational career.”
Hall County Schools has allocated about $700,000 in new funding for school safety measures since the deadly shooting in Florida last February.
This includes a new silent alarm network and other emergency communication systems added to all schools after a successful pilot project in the spring, and new stun guns for school resource officers.
It also includes an infusion of $215,000 in state funding to convert the district’s bus radios to digital and expand communications coverage to 99 percent of the county.
Officials with Gainesville City Schools, meanwhile, said in July they are working closely with local police, fire and emergency responders to implement more frequent evacuation drills on school campuses and conduct full evaluations of site-specific safety needs for schools.
The Board of Education is also considering recommendations that include adding safety-related signage on campuses; providing more training for school resource officers; and continually revising emergency preparedness plans.
Gainesville City Schools will receive about $81,000 in grant funding from the state to help pay for security improvements at school facilities.
Miller said it’s important to allow local school districts to determine what their security needs are and how best to implement safety measures even while “state and federal oversight is appropriate.”
“Local school boards and (governments) should be empowered to put in place proactive mechanisms to ensure the most vulnerable, our kids, are properly protected,” he added. “I’ve always been a proponent of Second Amendment rights, but child safety is critical.”
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said the study committee’s recommendations are a starting point for discussions in the legislature.
The House also launched a school security study committee this year, but has not yet released a report or recommendations from its four public meetings.
Dunahoo said the legislature will be looking at the “big picture” in 2019.
“I think it’s a going to be a big part of what we do in the House,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report