Federal funding for school safety, security, school policing, and emergency / crisis preparedness was chipped away and eventually eliminated from the federal budget by President Obama and Congress during the four years prior to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults.
While no one can say whether these programs would have specifically prevented the Sandy Hook attack, it can easily be argued that the elimination of these federal grant programs de-emphasized school security, school police, school emergency preparedness, and school violence.
In fact, Kevin Jennings, Obama’s then-assistant deputy secretary for Safe and Drug Free Schools, proudly boasted in a 2010 interview that the Administration was redefining school safety away from ‘school violence”:
“The traditional view of a “safe school” has been one in which there is little or no violence on campus.
I think this viewpoint is much too limited. If you’re only looking at school violence to measure school safety, I believe you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Consider this: “Incivil behavior” – verbal threats, hate language, bullying, social rejection – is almost twice as likely to predict student “self-protection” (skipping school, avoiding areas/activities) as is crime (theft, attacks) at school.
In a truly safe school – and the definition we use today at the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools – students feel like:
- They belong.
- They are valued.
- They feel physically and emotionally safe.
In other words, we put a greater focus on the overall school climate.”
Jennings backed his words with action as the Department of Education, under his leadership, eliminated school violence prevention, security, and emergency preparedness funding including:
- Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grants designed to help school prevent and manage emergencies including, but not limited to, school shootings like the one at Sandy Hook; and
- Safe and Drug Free Schools Program that funded drug and violence prevention programs, training security personnel and School Resource Officers (SROs), and other school crime and violence prevention initiatives.
- Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) funds used to provide short-term resources such as additional security and mental health services to schools like Sandy Hook that experienced a school shooting or other major act of violence (9/11, etc.).
Before abruptly leaving his post, Jennings made “bullying” nearly the sole focus of his office, with a strong emphasis on the bullying of LGBT youth. Jennings, a bundler for Obama in the 2008 election, served as founder of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) prior to his appointment by Obama.
But Jennings was not the only one cutting programs for school security and school police. Other programs eliminated include:
- Secure Our Schools (SOS) grant program that provided grants for security equipment, security assessments, and training from the Justice Department’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing;
- COPS in Schools programs for school-based policing from the Justice Department’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing; and
- Safe Schools, Healthy Students grant program that provided schools with resources for mental health, violence prevention, and associated needs as jointly funded through the collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice.
It is fair to say that two of these programs, the COPS in Schools program and the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, were chipped away at by the Bush Administration and prior Congressional actions before Obama. The Obama Administration just finished them off.
And Congress has dirty hands in the whole deal, too. It is amazing how even after a 2007 GAO report documenting the lack of preparedness by schools for emergencies, along with hearing testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, the federal Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant was eliminated rather than strengthened. Add to that testimony before the House Education Committee in both 2007 and 2009.
My take: Congress has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to federal policy and funding on school safety, security, school police, and school emergency / crisis preparedness. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration, which has focused its definition of school safety on bullying and civil rights, quietly eliminated all programs associated with the security, policing, emergency preparedness, violence prevention, and mental health school safety programs.
When the good folks inside the Beltway ask, “How did this happen?,” and “What do we need to do to prevent another Sandy Hook?,” I suggest they:
- Grab a mirror and ask themselves about their own actions and inaction; and
- Take a look at their voting record to see which of the above programs they voted to eliminate or failed to proactively advocate for in the federal budget.
These programs may not have prevented the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but they may very well have helped other communities prevent an attack like it.