Frank Brogan, Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education speaks to the Associated Press in his office at the Education Department in Washington, Thursday, August 30, 2018. Brogan said that a federal panel on school safety convened after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will suggest best practices in the spheres of mental health, security equipment and arming staff. (AP Photo/Maria Danilova)

School safety panel will recommend best practices in report

August 31, 2018 - 12:26 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal panel convened after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will issue a series of best practices to make schools safer, including recommendations on arming teachers, a senior Education Department official told The Associated Press. Age restrictions on gun purchases also are being considered.

Frank Brogan, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to school safety and that states and local jurisdictions have leeway to decide for themselves how to approach it.

Asked whether federal grants could be used to purchase firearms for schools, Brogan told the AP on Thursday that states have "always had the flexibility" to use the funds as they deem necessary for their students.

Democrats and education groups have argued, however, that the funds are intended for academics, not guns.

Brogan said arming educators "is a good example of a profoundly personal decision on the part of a school or a school district or even a state." Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have said that schools may benefit from having armed teachers and should have that option.

Brogan cited the "school marshal" program in Texas where school employees can volunteer to carry weapons on campuses after undergoing training. Educators from some remote rural schools also told the panel that they rely on armed school personnel because the police may take too long to arrive. Others, however, argued that arming teachers is dangerous and could make schools feel like prisons.

An early draft of the commission's report recommends that states and communities determine "based on the unique circumstances of each school" whether to arm its security personnel and teachers to be able to respond to violence. The draft's section on training school personnel was reviewed by AP.

That approach, the draft says, "can be particularly helpful" in rural districts where the nearest police unit may be far away. Other recommendations included employing school resource officers and ensuring they worked closely with the rest of the school staff.

If a state does decide to equip schools with firearms, it will be able to use Title IV federal grants for their school needs. Brogan said the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan law that shifts education authority to states, provides about $1 billion in annual funding for various school needs, including 20 percent specifically set aside for school safety.

"The people at the local level who've been there for years could make the decisions about what services to purchase, what equipment to buy to fulfill the general broad obligations laid out in that law," he said.

It would be up to Congress, not the U.S. Department of Education, to place any restrictions or barriers to use those funds for purposes not currently in the law, a department spokeswoman said.

The debate arose earlier this month after a small rural school district in Oklahoma and the state of Texas asked the department to clarify what the funds can be used for.

"The position is: You have the language ... the language was written specifically to and always interpreted to mean 'this is your money,'" Brogan said.

Democratic lawmakers and teachers blasted the idea, accusing the Trump administration of acting in the interests of the National Rifle Association, and several congressmen called for legislation that would prohibit the use of those funds for guns.

Brogan also clarified that the commission will tackle gun control as instructed by the White House. DeVos had told a Senate hearing in June that the panel will not look at guns "per se," causing confusion. Brogan said the commission will consider age restrictions for gun purchases, as well as whether people with mental health problems who are likely to harm themselves and others can possess weapons.

Brogan said the panel will produce a tool kit "that provides recognized best practices, not just the shiny new object on school safety, but what people are already doing that seems to be showing a track record of success that can be put out there in inventory fashion."

"You cannot do that with a uniform approach to this thing because the country is so very different, place to place, school to school, state to state," Brogan said. "There is no one way to make schools safe."

Besides recommendations on arming and training school staff, the research and best practices identified by the panel will include suggestions on equipping schools with magnetometers and other safety tools, character development programs and the impact of video games and movies on violent behavior. The report will be issued in "very late fall or by the end of the year," Brogan said.

The commission was created by President Donald Trump in March after 17 people were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The panel is chaired by DeVos and also consists of the heads of the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. The body has conducted a number of listening sessions, school visits and meetings over the summer, but experts have been skeptical about what it may accomplish.

Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit education consultancy and research group, and a former Clinton administration official, predicted that the commission's impact will be "next to nothing."

"It will be dismissed most charitably as incomplete and less charitably as a smoke screen to avoid taking on hard issues," Rotherham said. "This whole exercise is just incomplete."

Martin West, an education professor at Harvard University, said that federal commissions are usually put together to build consensus around hot topics and then provide recommendations that will be accepted widely. He gave the current commission credit for "making a good faith effort" to listen to suggestions from various groups, but said its very design — the lack of critical voices and experts — undermines its credibility.

"That gives people who are skeptics another reason to ignore the commission's findings," West said.

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This story has been corrected to delete reference to Brogan saying agency will let states decide on use of federal funds to arm teachers.