Schools and Public Safety: Minnesota Doesn’t Have to Stoop to Arming Teachers

Following the school shooting tragedy in Parkland, Fla., President Donald Trump said that teachers who have “natural talent like hitting a baseball or hitting a golf ball” should be armed in schools. Rather than rushing to such extremes, there must be a meaningful dialogue about school safety. Fortunately, Minnesota schools have listened, incorporating significant federal guidance as part of their approach to emergency management.

Within an 18-month period from September 2003 to March 2005, Minnesota suffered two school shootings, with 12 dead. Minnesota school districts; federal, state and local law enforcement agencies; and the Minnesota and U.S. Departments of Education worked together to prevent further violence in our schools.

Emergency concepts used by fire and police agencies became part of emergency planning for schools. In addition, standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association, OSHA and FEMA guide how schools now approach emergency management. These important principles do not include arming teachers.

Following the Minnesota school shootings, I served on a legislative school safety task force. We recommended creating a Minnesota School Safety Center as a centralized resource for planning. Over the years, this center provided best-practice recommendations for crisis teams, lockdown protocols, security technology, suspected threats and programs to improve school culture as a violence deterrent.

The task force also recommended using the federal “all hazards” approach to prepare schools for any emergency, whether a natural disaster, pandemic flu or an act of violence. We suggested that student safety teams evaluate student behavior to prevent violence. Many schools now partner with local law enforcement agencies, health professionals, students and families to share information.

The task force also recommended that schools be given additional school safety levy authority. Remarkably, years later, Minnesota school districts still can't use that authority to improve the security of their buildings. The Legislature should act to correct this and provide sufficient funding for school security infrastructure costs.

After Sandy Hook, the security of school buildings became a focus within school communities. School leaders sought the guidance of architects and security experts to assess building designs for protection against intruders. Design professionals now use a federally recommended process termed Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

Rather than concentrating on single-source security measures, such as cameras or arming teachers, CPTED focuses on changes to the physical and social environment to reinforce positive behavior. Design teams evaluate the relocation of offices, improved sight lines, bulletproof glass, integrated cameras and lighting, vestibule protection, and reconfigured traffic patterns. Schools also quickly remove graffiti and repair vandalism to promote a culture of responsibility.

The presence of law enforcement officers has become an important part of school emergency plans. However, many school districts cannot afford to pay for a school resource officer or security presence despite an identified need. In such situations, our federal and state governments should support funding for trained police officers, either serving as school resource officers or through local law enforcement agencies under a joint powers or mutual aid arrangement.

After the Minnesota tragedies, the U.S. Department of Education, in coordination with the Secret Service, worked with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety on a well-received publication for school administrators and law enforcement officials. It focused on identifying threats and responding to potential violence within schools, based on national studies of school shootings and the behavior of students who carried them out, and why other students with information about an attack did not tell authorities.

Importantly, the message was not to arm teachers, but to help build a positive school climate to establish trust and respect among students and staff and to encourage sharing information about threatening behavior before an incident occurs.

Working together, our schools and community partners have focused their emergency planning using time-tested national guidance. The clear message from our shared experience is that arming teachers has no place in any emergency management plan.

This article was written by O’Meara leer Wagner & Kohl shareholder Shamus O’Meara. It was originally published in the Opinion section ( page 7A) of the Star Tribune Friday, March 2nd, 2018.