Dayton eyes low-key way to protect school kids

/ 26 January 2013 / eunice

Jim Ragsdale, Star Tribune, January 26, 2013 – The grim but necessary subject of protecting schoolchildren from mayhem will be an unavoidable topic for the Legislature this year, and Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget takes the first crack at it.

The massacre of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six staff members at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 vaulted the issue to the top of the national agenda. But while much of the attention nationally is on gun control, Dayton’s budget focuses on helping schools work with law enforcement to protect students.

Dayton proposed reestablishing a small unit, the Minnesota School Safety Center, within the Department of Public Safety. It is to work with schools, law enforcement and communities to “provide emergency preparedness, response and recovery,” according to Dayton’s budget.

In presenting the plan to the Legislature last week, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the center was established with federal funds but ended when the money ran out. She said it is to be re-instituted “because of the recent tragedies in Newtown, as well as Minnesota wanting to be sure that every single school has good security measures to prevent this type of incident in our schools.”

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety said the five-person unit will provide help to schools with emergency planning and procedures, offer training sessions and perhaps an annual conference on school safety issues, and build partnerships between education, law enforcement and community groups.

Reinstituting the center was a goal of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, which represents state and local law-enforcement officers and is a voice for the police community at the Legislature.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director, said he is pleased with the governor’s recommendation, and said the center can help by cross-training teachers and officers so they understand each other’s roles and can better respond if the worst happens. “We like the idea of having a one-stop shop for school districts and law-enforcement agencies,” he said, and he imagines the center can bring together the best research and programs from schools across the nation.

In addition to the school safety center, the Department of Human Services is proposing additional funding so that more schools can provide mental health assistance to students.

Flaherty said his group will be pushing the Legislature to go further by providing grants to expand the number of schools with permanent law enforcement officers on site. While many larger high schools have full-time police officers, money for such a service is not among the governor’s recommendations.

“We think having officers going into schools, working with students and faculty, parking that shiny squad car out in front of schools, does make schools and classrooms more secure,” he said.