School building security and mental health counseling are the best way to prevent school shootings in Minnesota, Republican legislators said Thursday, as they presented a $50 million school safety package.
It did not include one component their DFL counterparts view as essential: gun restrictions.
“This package will go a long ways to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep our children safe ... There is no more important thing that we will do this session,” said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, chairwoman of the House Education Finance Committee.
The proposal built on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s $21 million school safety plan. Lawmakers and Dayton were spurred to act after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed.
Both plans use safe schools tax levy dollars to support school districts. Local school officials would be able to use that money for a variety of purposes, including security cameras, bullet-resistant glass or additional school support staff.
A flexible approach is important, because schools’ needs vary widely, Loon said.
Shortly after the GOP discussed the package of bills, House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman sent out a statement critiquing the lack of gun legislation.
“Republicans are doing nothing on gun violence prevention,” said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, . “Minnesotans have a right to safe movie theaters, safe churches, safe college campuses and safe schools, and they won’t get that unless we address gun violence.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the current session could still feature conversations about gun measures.
“We’ve had some hearings on gun legislation already. We very likely will have more, and as those conversations continue we hope to find solutions that will actually help prevent these problems from happening again,” he said.
Under the Republican plan, the school safety funding will be tied to the number of students in an area, but the measure aims to provide a minimum of $30,000 per district, Loon said. That would not be enough to cover the full cost of another counselor or school police officer. But it would help, and the districts could come up with the rest of the money, she said.
House Republicans and Dayton also want to add more funding for school-based mental health services, and have proposed an additional $5 million for that purpose.
Loon said she expects there will be ongoing funding, beyond 2019, for both mental health services and the school-specific safety improvements.
Other bills that are part of the House school safety package would be one-time spending. One of those measures would dedicate $273,000 next year to provide teachers online training about suicide prevention.
Another bill, which allocates $850,000, would require districts to create threat assessment teams. The teams would be tasked with identifying and assessing students who could be a safety threat, and connecting them with services or treatment when needed.
As for building security, lawmakers support a bill providing $2 million in reimbursements to schools that have contractors conduct an audit of their campuses’ security and crisis management policies.
Legislators said they also want to allow schools to divert some of the funding currently available for long-term maintenance projects. School officials would be able to use those dollars for modifying school buildings to improve security or adding public announcement systems and other equipment.
The debate over school safety and gun restrictions has played out all over the Capitol, from the front steps, where about 20,000 students and supporters of gun control rallied last weekend, to various committee meetings.
The topic resurfaced Thursday when the House Public Safety Committee considered a bill sponsored by Rep. Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, that would require school building security audits and crisis management policy reviews. Committee members generally supported the measure, but DFLers on the panel noted that they feel the security efforts are not enough.
“Nobody’s actually said the word ‘gun’ yet in this hearing,” said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville. “That’s part of the puzzle too, and we’re not going to be able to fully protect kids to the degree that we want to if we’re not comprehensively doing that.”