Legislative Update: Congress Scrambles to Introduce Bills to Address School Violence & Mental Health

In the wake of the school shootings last month in Parkland, Florida that claimed the lives of 17 people, key leaders in both the Senate and the House have introduced legislation they believe will improve school safety and bring more mental health counselors to schools.

Senate HELP Chairman Senator Lamar Alexander has introduced a bill (School Safety & Mental Health Services Improvement Act) that would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and allow states and districts to use ESSA Title IVA funds to “improve school safety infrastructure,” including “physical security, technology, and training of school personnel to recognize and respond to threats of school violence.”

POLITICO reported that Alexander told members of CCSSO during their legislative meeting that “states could use the funds for mental health, hiring more school counselors and steps for violence prevention, and that funds could be used for armed systems, improving entrances and exits of schools, installing security cameras and other infrastructure upgrades if you chose to do that.”

Alexander’s bill would also allow states to use Title II teacher training funding “to hire and improve the professional development of school counselors” and creates a Presidential Task Force to better coordinate resources between the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Justice, Interior and Homeland Security. It also updates Titles II and IV to clarify existing allowable school safety activities, including bullying and harassment prevention, crisis response, and other programs designed to reduce and prevent school violence.

A bill that would authorize a Justice Department school violence prevention program has also been introduced in both the House and Senate and House action is expected. The “STOP School Violence Act,” H.R. 4909 (115), would allow the Justice Department to issue grants to states and districts to train police agencies, school personnel and students and to develop reporting systems and other programs, and fund security measures in schools, such as metal detectors.

On Wednesday, March 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of last month’s school shooting, where she told attendees that school districts should have the option to arm teachers. 

President Donald Trump has called for armed and trained teachers in the schools, citing examples of programs that stress extensive training and safety already established in Texas and Florida. These ideas have been repeatedly opposed by teacher unions and school psychologists.

Increased Title IV Funding for School Safety and Mental Health Services?

Members of Congress are also calling for increased funding for Title IVA so that schools have funds available for school safety measures.

During his meeting with state leaders last week Alexander hinted that there “might be additional money” for the additional Title IV programs in the upcoming fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

Both House leaders of the Education and Workforce Committee—Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx and Ranking Member Rep. Bobby Scott—urged that funding grants to states that support student services should be a “top priority” after the Florida school shooting and urged congressional appropriators to prioritize funding for the  ESSA Title IVA,  Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG).

In a March 8 letter, 28 Democratic senators asked appropriations leaders for the highest possible funding for the ESSA TitleIVA SSAEG grant to support school climate and safety programs and address the opioid epidemic. “As of the date of this letter, there have been 12 shootings in American schools this year, according to an analysis by CNN, and we are only two months into 2018. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2016 there were 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the United States, equivalent to 174 individuals dying each day, and 92,000 children were removed from their homes in FY16 because at least one parent had a substance abuse issue. Congress cannot ignore these disturbing trends.”

As you will recall the Title IVA SSAEG is a formula based program that allows states and districts to determine the use of funds as long as programs support student health and safety, a well-rounded education (which includes science and STEM programs) and the effective use of technology.

Trump Issues Report on Science and Technology

The White House released a report last week that highlighted the Administration’s successes in science and technology during President Trump’s first year in office.

On STEM education, the report states, “On September 25, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum directing the Secretary of Education to prioritize high-quality STEM and computer science education when awarding competitive grant funding. The memorandum also establishes a goal of de-voting at least $200 million annually in grant funds for this purpose, which was matched by a private industry commitment of $300 million.

“On February 28, President Trump signed the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act into law. The INSPIRE Women Act called on the NASA Administrator to encourage women and girls to pursue STEM education and careers in aerospace by supporting related NASA initiatives. On July 26, President Trump donated his second-quarter salary to the Department of Education to host a STEM-focused camp for students. The Trump Administration has also continued senior level attendance at STEM gatherings across the country, including the National Science Bowl, the U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad, and the FIRST Global Challenge.”

The achievements cited in the report also include the Administration’s efforts with energy dominance, the opioid epidemic and space exploration.

Read the full report here.

Also last week . . .

Fifty seven House Democrats sent a letter to Education Secretary DeVos on March 7, expressing their disappointment regarding implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, saying she was approving states plans that violate the federal law, and urging her to review all state plans to ensure they are compliant with ESSA.

At issue is whether DeVos has approved (or is about to approve) state plans which will rate schools on school-wide averages and will not adequately count the performance of certain groups of historically underserved students, including low-income students, African American students and Hispanic students. The law requires that the performance of individual groups of students must be counted in school ratings. More here.

And Education Secretary DeVos has released the Department’s final priorities for issuing funds through existing discretionary grant programs and as expected, STEM education and computer science are included as one of the 11 priorities. Read more here.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at jpeterson@nsta.org or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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