Alissa Parker, whose six-year-old daughter was among 20 children killed at the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, endorsed a series of bills Tuesday in the Washington state Legislature to make schools safer.
“I can say first-hand that school safety is hard enough in well-funded districts with highly-trained staff members and emergency responders who are mere minutes away from the school. Here in the state of Washington, many of our schools lack adequate funding, training and community resources needed to secure the safety of our students,” said Parker, who has lived outside of Vancouver for six years, has two daughters in public schools and founded a nonprofit group focusing on school safety.
At a press conference, Democratic legislators outlined nine bills that would provide for the hiring of more guidance counselors and training and support for educators and students, among several items. None of them calls for arming teachers or other school personnel.
Since the 2018 legislative session, House and Senate members toured the nine educational service centers around the state and heard from principals, teachers, school directors and children, said Sen. Lisa Wellman, the Mercer Island Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
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“We heard that arming teachers and hardening schools was not the answer. While controlling guns is critical — and our voters certainly spoke strongly to that in this past election — that’s not the only thing that we need to be concerned about. We learned that we need to provide more support for mental health and well-being for our school kids,” Wellman said.
Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require educational service districts to establish regional school safety centers, with staff members trained in “threat assessment.” She defined that as a person’s ability to notice if a student could be a danger to self or others.
Dolan said several of the bills are based on research by Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma.
In most cases, the perpetrator of a mass school shooting tells people about those plans, but often fellow students don’t alert school officials, Madfis said. The best way to change that is through “restorative discipline,” to try to resolve conflicts and handle issues in schools rather than use “zero tolerance” discipline, he added.
“It’s vital that we have the kind of positive school environment where kids feel comfortable coming forward to their teachers, to sometimes school resources officers, to principals, to people they trust in the building,” Madfis said.
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, has filed a bill enabling courts to issue extreme-risk protection orders to those under the age of 18 if they are a high risk of hurting themselves or others during a mental health crisis or through potentially violent behavior.
If the bill becomes law, parents and guardians of the child would be notified and legally obligated to secure any weapons, Frocht said.
A bill sponsored by Wellman would require school resource officers to receive training on several topics, including “local and national disparities in the use of force and arrests of children.” A school resource officer is a law enforcement officer with sworn authority to make arrests and assigned by his or her agency to tackle crime and disorder problems, gangs and drug activities, the state says.
“They’re not in all of our schools. In many cases, some schools want them. Some schools don’t need them,” said Wellman. “Where they are in our schools, we need to make sure they have the training so they can know how to handle de-escalating situations; that they understand children who have some mental health issues and understand some children have disabilities.”
Wellman said it is up to school districts to decide if school resource officers carry guns.
Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, was the lead sponsor of a bill last year to create a training program to arm teachers to react to school shooters. The measure didn’t get out of a Senate committee.
Fortunato said he plans to try to add last year’s bill as an amendment to a one of the school safety bills or another gun-related measure.
“Nobody wants to send their kid to an armed camp. I also don’t want to send my kid to an unarmed camp,” he said.
In 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother with a .22-caliber rifle, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where he shot and killed 20 children, six adults and himself.
Parker’s daughter, Emilie, was among the children killed. Parker co-founded Safe and Sound Schools, a nonprofit group which focuses on supporting school crisis prevention, response and recovery.
Parker said the bills that the Legislature is weighing are a model for making schools safer.
“Through my story and the lessons learned, we can stop this endless cycle of finger-pointing and sending thoughts and prayers when these tragedies happen,” Parker said.