Momentum is growing in the Minnesota Legislature for changes to school safety and gun laws in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to outline his school safety plan on Wednesday. “I’m willing to consider anything and everything,” he said last week.
A House panel on Tuesday discussed a bill introduced by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, that would allow schools to use for the first time a routine maintenance fund for safety upgrades, including secure entrances, security cameras and communications devices.
Attitudes about school safety have shifted across the state since the Florida shootings, Grace Keliher, government relations director for the Minnesota Association of School Boards, said at Tuesday’s House Committee on Education Finance hearing. “Enough is enough,” she said.
A bill introduced by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, would create new funding separate from the existing safe schools levy to beef up school security. Those steps could range from installing steel doors and bullet-resistant glass to paying for armed guards. Each school would decide its own needs.
While Republicans who control the Legislature focus on making schools less vulnerable, DFL lawmakers are moving to tighten gun regulations.
On Thursday, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, plans to propose raising the minimum age to possess a semiautomatic military-style assault weapon from 18 to 21. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, is the House sponsor of the bill, which would expand the definition of semiautomatic assault weapons and criminalize their transfer to underage people.
In Washington, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Tuesday that the GOP-controlled chamber will vote next week on a bill creating a federal grant program to train students, teachers and school officials to identify and intervene early when they spot signs of potential violence. The bill would implement federal school-threat assessment protocols designed to prevent school shootings.
Tuesday’s hearing in St. Paul provided glimpses into the fears and priorities of some school officials and House members.
Dave Moredock, risk management coordinator for Osseo Area Schools — the state’s fifth-largest district — said concerned parents are telling him that “we need to be doing more to keep kids safe, and we need to do it now.”
Patricia Magnuson, Osseo schools’ finance and operations director, said the district has about $600,000 to begin upgrading security cameras from analog to digital at five of its 32 buildings in 2019.
Its plan to tighten security has a $16 million price tag that would cover “hardened” front entrances at three high schools and the Osseo Area Learning Center; improved front entrances at four middle schools and 17 elementary schools and other buildings; digital cameras; a digital visitor management system, and other projects including a system that would allow staff to lock down interior doors from inside and outside rooms.
It could take up to 27 years to complete that plan, the Osseo officials said, but the pending legislation making new funding available would accelerate that timetable.
A panel of teachers told the committee that it opposes arming educators. “More guns are not the answer,” said Don Sinner, who teaches in Lakeville. Tom Baker, a union president for Eden Prairie schools, said a recent Education Minnesota survey found that educators blame school violence on easy access to guns and a lack of access to mental health services.
Randy Johnson, director of the Minnesota School Safety Center, a Department of Public Safety program since 2013, described its efforts to provide training, threat assessments, victim support and other technical assistance.
With an annual budget of $405,000 and just three staff members, he said, the center helps about 200 schools every year.
Johnson’s remarks prompted a series of questions from committee members that made their concerns clear.
Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, asked if laws set standards for the selection and training of school resource officers — law enforcement personnel who work inside schools. The answer: no.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, wanted to know if training for school resource officers includes efforts to overcome implicit racial bias. Yes, Johnson said.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, encouraged Johnson’s team to collect and share data with the Minnesota Department of Education.
And Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, questioned Johnson about the ratio of school resource officers to students. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the site of last month’s massacre, she said, “they had one person only.”