Rep. Kline hears concerns about school safety, funding

/ 25 February 2013 / eunice

Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio, February 25, 2013 – Two months after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., school officials have struggled with how to increase security while keeping their schools open and welcoming.

That dilemma also is on the minds of members of Congress, among them U.S. Rep. John Kline, who on Monday concluded a fact-finding mission to Minnesota schools by meeting with more than a dozen superintendents, school board members and other school officials.

Kline, a Republican from Minnesota’s 2nd District who chairs the House Education Committee, will convene a hearing on Thursday to explore how schools can improve security in the wake of the Connecticut shootings. He has visited several Minnesota schools in recent weeks to see how they secure their buildings.

“We want to look at things that are being done to provide physical safety,” Kline told the school officials. “Are you bringing more personnel in the schools? I’d be interested in your thoughts on what you like to see, or not see.”

But while school officials in Minnesota worry about security, some school officials say increasing federal funding for special education and mental health programs in schools should be an even bigger priority.

Jackie Magnuson, a member of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board, wondered if instead of weighing whether to provide money for more security, like armed guards, Congress could increase funding for mental health counselors as a way to help troubled young people before they commit a violent act.

“If you really had help for students in your schools,” Magnuson said, “what would that do to the whole thing about security?”

Other school administrators at the meeting agreed that school safety isn’t necessarily their top priority for Congress. Some said they’re largely concerned about funding gaps, especially in special education, where federal and state dollars don’t fully reimburse what schools spend to help students.

As a result, school districts cover the rest with money from their general budgets, and it can amount to hundreds of dollars per student per year.

When Kline asked the educators about whether they would prefer to see increased special education funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Act or more funding for new school security measures, all agreed on special education.

“Wow,” Kline said. “OK.”

Kline said even as Congress considers how to keep students safe, school officials should keep pushing for more special education funding. “Coming from you, from schools boards, from the local level, from superintendents, from the teachers union from all of the people in this room,” he said, “saying ‘That’s what we need the most from the federal government.’”

Despite their focus on special education, school security remains a priority for the school officials who met with Kline, and their counterparts nationwide. In the weeks since the tragedy in Connecticut, school officials across the country have been reevaluating how they approach security. Many have begun locking doors and stationing employees close to main entrances to control who’s coming in and out.

Some have also scrutinized the layout of their schools, many of which were built in an open and flowing style in the years before school shootings became a concern.

“School safety is one of our biggest topics, there’s no question about it,” said Craig Junker, superintendent of the Lake City School District. “We all want our kids to be able to come to school feeling emotionally safe and physically safe.”

Junker said education officials walk a fine line when it comes to security. They have to balance keeping children safe, without locking the school down like a prison.

“I think you can get there,” he said. “I think you need to communicate why you’re doing it and rely on people’s common sense as well.”