WASHINGTON, D.C. — A National Rifle Association-backed task force unveiled a sweeping set of proposed school safety measures Tuesday, the gun rights group’s counterproposal to the spate of gun control bills introduced in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December.
Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and drug czar under President George W. Bush, announced the National School Shield task force findings in a Washington, D.C., news conference amid tight security. The 225-page report, the result of safety assessments at six private and public schools across the country, makes eight recommendations for school administrators, local, state and federal policy makers and the NRA.
Among them: an online self-assessment tool for each school to evaluate their own security gaps, improved coordination among the federal Departments of Education, Justice and Homeland Security, and a pilot program on threat assessment and mental health.
“This report includes everything from best practices to technology to a review of surveillance,” Hutchinson said.
But the most attention-getting aspect of the plan is likely the proposed expansion of armed school personnel. In a press conference in December, Hutchinson said the NRA’s school safety plan would consist of “armed, trained, qualified school security personnel” drawn from local volunteers. On Tuesday, Hutchinson announced a model training program for selected armed school staff.
“This is not talking about all teachers,” Hutchinson said. “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 of 40 to 60 hours that is totally comprehensive, then that is an appropriate resource that a school should be able to utilize.” He later said the program would not rely on volunteers, as previously announced, after school superintendents expressed “great reluctance.”
President Barack Obama, in his gun control proposals released in January, has also proposed an increase in the number of specially trained campus police, known as school resource officers.
The announcement comes at a critical time for federal gun legislation. The Senate is set to take up a gun package next week that will include measures to address gun trafficking and expand background check requirements, as well as a school safety proposal that would provide $40 million in grants for school districts to improve their security plans. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will also likely be considered next week as amendments to the bill.
The centerpiece of the Senate proposals is the background check measure, the top priority for gun control advocates. The expansion of background checks has high public approval in polls, but Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the effort, has so far been unable to secure a bipartisan compromise that would ensure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. The NRA has vigorously opposed near-universal background checks, arguing that lawmakers should focus instead on improving the existing background check program.
The school safety report does not address expanding background checks, although Hutchinson acknowledged that armed school personnel, according to their proposal, would undergo a background check and between 40 and 60 hours of training.
“We have worked so hard and focused on this school safety report. We have not focused on the separate debate in Congress about firearms,” Hutchinson said.
“While that debate goes on, we’re trying to do something about school safety,” he added.
In the plan, the cost of these measures would primarily fall to states and local school districts, but Tony Lambraia, a task force member and CEO of Phoenix RBT Solutions, said the full price tag attached to the program had not been set.
When asked how to justify the cost while many school districts face cash shortages, Hutchinson replied, “You justify it because it’s necessary.”
Mark Mattioli, a Newtown parent whose son James was killed in the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, also spoke briefly at the news conference.
Mattioli has opposed new firearms laws and instead has called for more efforts to improve the nation’s mental health system. His stance is at odds with other families of Newtown victims, several of whom have appeared at the White House and in television commercials to push for stricter laws. Obama will make a trip to the University of Hartford next week to make the case for gun measures.
“As parents we send our kids off to school and there are certain expectations. And obviously, at Sandy Hook those expectations weren’t met,” Mattioli said. “Politics need to be set aside here and I hope this doesn’t lead to name-calling. But rather, this is recommendations for solutions, real solutions that will make our kids safer.”
Despite visible coordination with the NRA in the rollout of the school safety report (the report is located on an NRA website and NRA officials were present at the news conference), Hutchinson stressed the task force’s independence from the gun rights group. Hutchinson said he was hired as a consultant to steer the effort; other participants include several former Secret Service officials, retired law enforcement officers and private security contractors.
In response to the proposal, the NRA took a “wait-and-see” approach.
“We need time to digest the full report,” the group said in a statement. “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.”
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The American Civil Liberties Union said the proposal includes “potentially radical elements, including getting the federal government in the business of supplying arms to teachers, without any evidence that doing so would make children safer,”
“It is important to create a culture of trust between students and teachers, and arming teachers is the antithesis of that, especially in the 19 states where corporal punishment is still allowed in schools,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office in a statement. “We are concerned about the potential civil liberties implications this proposal could have for students, who all too often are funneled from schools into the criminal justice system. We hope the NRA addresses these concerns and that Congress will reject any proposal that militarizes our schools.”
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