Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a $21 million school safety plan Wednesday that appeared to strike common ground in the contentious debate over how to protect Minnesota students and teachers.
Dayton’s Safe and Secure Schools Act focuses on improving school building security, assisting expelled students and adding mental health services. The DFL governor said he also supports gun control bills that some have called for in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., but he said he did not want controversial additions to prevent his proposal from moving forward. He said he hopes those bills progress separately.
Part of Dayton’s plan closely resembles legislation recently proposed by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, to improve security on school campuses.
“I think that portends well,” Nelson said. “The fact that the governor’s language and bill proposal is very much like what we rolled out ... I think is a very good sign.”
Dayton wants to use some of the state’s projected $329 million surplus to channel nearly $16 million to schools next year, which they would be able to use on whatever building safety improvements they deem appropriate. That could include bullet-resistant glass, entrance security or additional school resource officers and counselors.
The $16 million would also help support a new school district requirement in the proposal, which is intended to identify and assist students at risk of becoming violent. Under Dayton’s plan, districts would have to do a threat assessment before expelling students and provide them with additional services.
“We have a big task to try to identify people before they commit these terrible acts,” Dayton said of the shooting in Parkland, which killed 17 students and staff.
His proposal also includes an additional $5 million to bolster mental health programs in schools.
Both Dayton and Nelson are eyeing the state’s general fund to support their school safety plans, though Nelson’s bill doesn’t have an exact dollar figure attached yet. However, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, has proposed a bill allowing schools to use money from a routine maintenance fund for the same purpose. Nelson said lawmakers could look at using both funding sources.
Dayton, legislators and educators all seem to agree that school districts should be responsible for determining how to spend the money for security.
“We need flexible funding. No two school districts are the same,” said Orono Superintendent Karen Orcutt, who stood with Dayton when he announced the plan. Orono schools were locked down Feb. 21 after social media posts threatened a school shooting, and a male student was arrested.
While lawmakers highlighted common ground, students rallied on the front steps of the State Capitol to encourage them to do more.
Hundreds of high school students walked out of class Wednesday. Jacob Werle, a senior at Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, said he watched the line of students grow as they marched down Marshall Avenue until he could no longer see the end of it.
“There’s obviously a very clear and present danger,” Werle said, and students plan to “constantly stay in the sight of our legislators and force them to change the gun policy in our country.”
A classmate, junior Kaiya Chester, said mental health funding is critical and the measures Dayton proposed are a step in the right direction.
“They would definitely help, but it doesn’t get to the root of the issue,” said Chester, who wants lawmakers to add gun restrictions.
The governor on Wednesday listed numerous gun control measures he supports, including expanding criminal background checks and allowing family members and police to ask a judge to temporarily remove someone’s guns. Gun rights supporters opposed that legislation, and last week a House panel tabled the bills.
Dayton did not throw his support behind arming teachers, an idea that has spurred heated debate across the country. He said he is concerned that students would not feel safe walking through school and wondering who is carrying a gun.
Members of the gun control group Protect Minnesota called and e-mailed Dayton on Tuesday, urging him not to include a provision to arm teachers or school personnel in his act. After the governor’s announcement Wednesday, the group sent an e-mail lauding Dayton’s actions and “his call for passage of sensible gun laws that will protect children and school personnel in our state, instead of turning our schools into armed camps.”
The group plans to hold a news conference Thursday about a bill to raise the age to purchase semiautomatic assault weapons from 18 to 21, which Dayton supports.
Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus political director Rob Doar said his group will be watching to ensure that legislators don’t try to tuck such gun control measures in with the governor’s school safety proposal. But Doar would like to see another security measure progress: a bill by Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, offering reimbursement grants to school districts that hire a contractor to audit the physical security of school campuses.
“It’s nice to see that the governor separated the gun control agenda from keeping schools safe,” Doar said. “We’re going to have to make sure we keep an eye on the process.”