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School safety since Newtown

A version of this article first appeared at Education Week.


by Nirvi Shah & Andrew Ujifusa

After the devastating school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, state lawmakers around the country vowed to act. The mission: Devise ways to prevent a similar tragedy.

They came up with hundreds of possible strategies.

An Education Week analysis of nearly 400 bills related to school safety filed in the days, weeks, and months after the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history found that legislators have proposed solutions that include arming teachers, adding guards or police officers, and shoring up the security of school buildings. 

The bills included all have a direct link to education, or to the Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 1st graders and six staff members were killed Dec. 14. So while bills about magazine size and assault-weapon restrictions are included, those involving background checks for gun purchases are not, unless they also contained provisions related to schools. Where the same version of a bill was introduced in both legislative chambers, only one was counted. 

“Obviously there’s been quite a big reaction. There’s a really big volume of legislation on this issue,” said Lauren Heintz, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures who has tracked state school safety bills.

A few states allowed school employees, including teachers, to carry weapons to school before Newtown. So far, only two more — Kansas and South Dakota — have passed laws allowing it since the shootings. But at least 62 proposals have been introduced in state legislatures to create that option or to require armed staff members. That's a departure from the reaction after the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., when placing more police in schools was the focus. That some legislation has gone through the complete legislative process at the state level is a sharp departure from the congressional effort to tackle gun control and school safety, which has stalled.

As of mid-April, only 12 state legislatures had ended their regular sessions, according to the NCSL, but many of the pending bills inevitably will end up going nowhere. At that point, 19 relevant bills had been signed into law.

Although the concept of arming teachers has received more attention than other proposals, a plurality of the bills reviewed by Education Week would encourage or require school emergency planning: more drills, more types of drills, and more detailed and dynamic plans. For example, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed four bills on April 16 addressing emergency planning.

"Sometimes, it's a more cautionary approach to really look at what schools are doing," Heintz said. "It's more of an introspective response."

In the analysis, Education Week placed each bill into at least one of seven categories, such as “Police in Schools,” “Arming School Employees,” and “Building Safety Upgrades.” Because some bills dealt with multiple aspects of school safety, they are classified in multiple categories; however, even if two bills are in the same category, it does not mean they have the identical goal.

A few proposals proved difficult to categorize, including one Missouri bill that would bar school employees from asking students about any firearms in their homes. And one Texas bill would allow districts to offer high school students elective classes on firearm safety that would teach the history and importance of the Second Amendment. (Education Week decided to place both of those bills in our "School Climate and Student Supports" category.)

Geographic Trends

Education Week analyzed how legislatures reacted in different regions of the country, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. The breakdown includes information from four regions of the country (Northeast, South, Midwest and West), as well as nine divisions within those four regions, as well as state activity. For example, Connecticut lawmakers were, not surprisingly, very active when it came to school safety bills.

In each of the four largest geographic regions used by the U.S. Census, “School Emergency Planning” legislation was the most popular category.

Despite high-profile "Gun Control" legislation in Connecticut and New York, this was only the third-most popular category of legislation in the Northeast region overall, tied with bills addressing "Police in Schools". "Building Safety Upgrades" was the second-most popular legislative category in the region, although it occurred at less than half the rate of "School Emergency Planning." By contrast, "Arming School Employees" was the least popular category in the Northeast, occurring in legislation only three times.

In the South, “Police in Schools” and “Arming School Employees” tied for the most popular category of legislation. Each category occurred 38 times among bills introduced there. The least popular category was “Building Safety Upgrades,” and the second-least popular dealt with “School Climate and Student Supports”. Bills dealt with Gun Control on 17 occasions in the South.

The frequency of categories in relevant Midwest bills was distributed fairly equally. The most popular category, “School Emergency Planning,” occurred 19 times, while “Police in Schools” and “Building Safety Upgrades” were the least popular; each occurred eight times.

The West region generated the least activity. Altogether, bills in that region fit one of Education Week's seven categories only 70 times, the fewest of any of the four Census regions.

By contrast, lawmakers in the South introduced bills fitting into categories 195 times—the highest frequency.

Among the nine smaller geographic divisions, “School Emergency Planning” was again the most popular category for legislation, except in two divisions in the South: the South Atlantic, which includes Florida, Georgia, and Virginia; and the East South Central, where the four states are Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

“Gun Control” was part of only one bill introduced in the Pacific region, which includes Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. And only one piece of legislation in the Mountain division, which includes Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, addressed “Building Safety Upgrades”.

In the South Atlantic, “Arming School Employees” was the most popular strategy used in bills, while in the East South Central, legislation dealing with “Police in Schools” attracted the most interest.

The analysis found relevant legislation in all 50 states.

Not surprisingly, the state where lawmakers introduced the highest number of relevant bills was Connecticut, where 30 pieces of legislation were generated. However, many of these bills are dead.

The state with the next highest number of bills introduced was New York, with 22 pieces of legislation, followed by Texas (20), Tennessee (18), Oklahoma (17), Mississippi (15), and Florida (15). Altogether, five out of the top seven most active states are located in the South.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont each had only one piece of relevant legislation introduced, although South Dakota's bill allowing districts to arm teachers was signed into law. Among other states with large numbers of students, California had 10 relevant bills introduced, Illinois had 12, and Pennsylvania had nine.

View Education Week's in-depth analysis.

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