WASHINGTON - A task force backed by the National Rifle Association has put forth a slate of recommendations to improve school safety, including a proposal to arm school personnel and train educators on how to police school campuses with the aim of reducing the response time during a school shooting.
Under the protection of armed private security guards at the National Press Club in Washington today, Asa Hutchinson, the director of the National School Shield Program, unveiled the panel's eight recommendations, including a proposal to create a model training program for armed school personnel: essentially resource officers trained in weapons retention, coordination with local law enforcement and battling intruders.
Hutchinson said the task force recommended arming school personnel, including teachers, provided that they pass a background check and complete a comprehensive training program.
"Teachers should teach, but if there is a personnel that has good experience, that has an interest in it and is willing to go through this training … then that is an appropriate resource that a school should be able to utilize," Hutchinson said.
The review not only analyzed practices already in place at some schools, but also examined how changes to technology and surveillance could improve school safety.
"We looked at the interior and exterior doors, access controls, architecture and design of the schools, and then we looked at the armed officers," Hutchinson said. "We believe that they make a difference in the various layers of security that add to school safety."
Mark Mattioli, whose son, James, was killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., late last year, praised the work of the task force and called on policy makers to put politics aside in the interest of the children.
"As parents, we send our kids off to school, and there are certain expectations, and obviously, in Sandy Hook, those expectations weren't met," Mattioli said. "I hope this doesn't, you know, lead to name- calling, but rather, this is recommendations for solutions, real solutions that will make our kids safer, and that's what we need.
"I'm putting it on you," he continued. "I'm putting it on the experts out there to do something with these recommendations, to implement solutions so people don't have to go through what I'm going through."
Hutchinson, a former U.S. Representative, U.S. Attorney, and Under Secretary for Border & Transportation Security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, announced the task force's findings at a news conference in downtown Washington today, where he was guarded by a noticeable security presence.
"If you have the firearm on the presence of someone in the school that can reduce the response time, it will save lives. That is the objective," he said. "The presence of an armed security in a school is a layer that's just as important as the mental health component. If you have a mental health component without having other security, it's inadequate, and if you have the armed presence there without having locking doors, it's inadequate."
The NRA created the National School Shield Program last December in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting through its Education and Training Emergency Response Program. Since then, some critics have complained that the gun lobby has slowed efforts in Congress to enact new gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban and universal background checks.
Rep. Mike Thompson, who chaired a Democratic House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, agreed that school safety is a critical element to reduce gun violence, but in a statement, he called for an inclusive approach to reduce gun violence.
"We should do everything we can to keep our kids safe, and that includes having school resource officers in those schools that want them, and urging our communities to develop safety plans in case of emergencies," Thompson, D-Calif., stated. "However, arming school personnel and training them for shootouts will only exacerbate problems."
The NRA reacted to the findings in a brief statement but declined to immediately endorse any of the recommendations.
"We need time to digest the full report," the NRA statement read. "We commend Asa Hutchinson for his rapid response in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, and we are certain the contributions he and his team have made will go a long way to making America's schools safer."
The National School Shield panel also recommended that states enact legislation to allow firearms to be carried by school personnel, schools implement an interagency agreement with local law enforcement to determine the difference between criminal offenses and routine school disciplinary issues, and an online self-assessment tool created by the task force where educators can scrutinize school safety performance and uncover gaps in their own security posture.
"This online assessment tool is available for any school, parochial, private or public school, free of charge on the website whenever it is deployed, and it will not be something the principal can fill out," Hutchinson said. "They'll be asked questions on access control. Are classroom doors kept locked during instructional times? Does the school enforce its visitor sign in and access control? Has a school staff been trained to question or challenge a visitor that's not properly badged? What actions are taken when authorized visitors are detected?"
Hutchinson also recommended that states implement education adequacy policies not to mandate what a school should do, but rather that they do something in terms of assessment and the development of an adequate plan. He also called on federal policymakers to improve federal coordination, which he said is burdened by overlapping and duplicative programs across the Departments of Education, Justice and Homeland Security.
"They need to have a lead agency and they need to have greater coordination," he said. "On the funding side, our recommendation is that the federal role is greater support for innovation, for technology and training grants."
The panel also put forward a recommendation for the National Rifle Association, calling on the National School Shield to transition into "an umbrella organization to advocate and support school safety across this nation" through a free web-based assessment.
Finally, the panel's eighth recommendation is to launch a pilot program on threat assessment and mental health to encourage information-sharing, produce a climate that reduces incidences of bullying and anti-social behavior, identify threats, and offer counseling support.