My Experience Testifying Before the Federal Commission on School Safety

As the Federal Legislative Chair for Wyoming PTA, I testified before the Federal Commission on School Safety at a listening session in August in Cheyenne, WY. 

In my testimony, I referenced National PTA’s position statements on school safety and shared my experiences as a trustee of the local school district, Laramie County School District 1. I am proud that PTA emphasizes the inclusion of all stakeholders in local safety and security decisions and that arming teachers is not the solution to gun violence in schools.

I was listening, too, as students from Denver and Albuquerque testified before the commission on what school “safety and security” means to them. They talked about the importance of feeling safe from daily verbal and physical assaults from other students, about instances where they were in despair and contemplating self-harm. They talked about putting resources into counselors and school psychologists, not arming teachers.

Students from high schools with a large minority enrollment discouraged the commission from even arming law enforcement. In Wyoming, we rely on School Resource Officers onsite at our secondary schools, as trained and trusted professionals to respond to an active shooter. But the students who spoke at the listening session said they feared that more law enforcement presence in schools would lead to the targeting students of color and creation of more violence. These students want an environment free of weapons, staffed by caring and competent adults to help them deal with the violence that threatens them every day.

We must balance the need to protect students and staff in schools, but also ensure positive school discipline policies and procedures are in place so no group of students are disproportionately disciplined.  If the decision is made to have a Student Resource Officer in a school building, there must be a clearly defined memorandum of understanding, as recommended by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), between the law enforcement agency and the school on the role of the officer.

Of course, we need to be prepared for the rare but real possibility of disaster, as we do with tornado shelters. So, we need buildings with secure access, we need school personnel and students to be prepared for all types of emergency scenarios, and we need trained SROs. But what I gained from the listening session was what makes students afraid every day and what makes them feel safe personally, so they can learn. A gun in the Social Studies teacher’s desk drawer doesn’t make them feel safe.

I also learned the value of anonymous reporting systems, we use Safe2Tell in Wyoming, because students want to be safe and will tell adults about weapons and threats they see and hear in their schools.

These things cost money, obviously, and our fear is that pressure to cut budgets will keep our schools from meeting the daily safety and security needs the students described. I think a few of the adults mentioned that fear, too.

I trust the Federal Commission on School Safety was listening and releases a report that focuses on collaborative, evidenced-based school safety best practices as recommended in the Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.

 

We Need All Voices at the Table When Discussing School Safety

We were deeply saddened to hear about the tragic school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas on Friday. It was the second shooting at a high school in the past week and the second mass shooting at a school this year. Every student deserves to learn and grow in a safe environment, and no parent should fear for the safety of their child every time they leave home for school. More must be done immediately to keep our children safe.

After the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, President Trump established the Federal School Safety Commission led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Secretary DeVos held an informal school safety meeting last Thursday to discuss lessons learned from previous school shootings. Today, the Department of Education released a video from the meeting.

We greatly appreciate the Secretary’s commitment to addressing school safety. School safety is a critical priority for all parents, educators, students and community members that should be urgently addressed. While we were pleased that the announcement of the Federal School Safety Commission mentioned the importance of input from students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders as part of the Commission’s work, the commission has not yet publicly announced opportunities for stakeholders to meaningfully engage with the Commission. We urge Secretary DeVos and the Commission to include parents and educators in all aspects of their work.

National PTA—along with 7 other national organizations—sent a letter to Secretary DeVos urging the secretary to meaningfully engage stakeholders in the Commission’s work. It is imperative that the voices of those who attend, work in, and send their children daily to our nations’ schools are intimately involved in these conversations at the federal, state and local levels.

We know that parent engagement is indispensable to an effective public dialogue. Parents are critical stakeholders in education issues who are reflective of their communities and provide invaluable input and perspective as the key consumers of educational systems along with their children. From our experiences with ESSA and other education initiatives, we have learned that engaging all stakeholders, including parents, is essential throughout the entire policy development process.

Our association recently joined the National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of School Resource Officers, National Association of Secondary School Principals, School Social Work Association of America, American School Counselor Association and National Association of Elementary School Principals to release “Considerations and Action Steps for Implementing the Framework,” a supplemental to A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools. National PTA hopes the Commission will advance evidence-based policy and best practices in creating safe schools in states and districts across the country.

As one of the primary consumers of our nation’s education system, parents are essential partners in education who must be brought to the table to improve school safety. Make your voice heard on this important issue by sending your comments and recommendations related to school safety to safety@ed.gov. We also encourage you to reach out to your child’s school and local education leaders to learn more current school safety measures and policies and collaborate with them on ways to improve the school environment.

Stay tuned to National PTA’s Twitter and Facebook page for more information on the activities of the school safety commission.


Hannah Engle is the Government Affairs Coordinator for National PTA.