WASHINGTON – Schools must change their safety plans to prevent and prepare for violent incidents on campus and off-campus attacks that indirectly affect schools.
The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on the subject Thursday.
Led by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson,D-Miss.,the committee chair,the hearing featured two groups of speakers – government officials and educators.
The hearing came in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech University in which a student shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before committing suicide.
The committee's discussion focused on the resources available to schools and ways to bridge the communications gap between local and state administrators and the federal government.
“When parents send their children to school and college,they expect them to be safe.” said Holly Kuzmich,deputy chief of staff of the Department of Education.
Kuzmich suggested a $99 million program for school safety to be allocated by state and not by school district.
“We found it ineffective to spread money across all districts,” Kuzmich said. “Our real goal with the program is to focus on states to complement what they already have in place.”
The plan,which has four parts – prevention,plan,response and recovery – is not required. Schools are asked only to certify that a safety plan exists.
That upset Thompson,who said it leaves no way to know if a plan is effective.
No law requires colleges and universities to have plans.
“Our campuses are very much a part of the communities they inhabit,” said James Renick,senior vice president for programs and research for the American Council on Education,an association of universities.
“This is the crux of what the committee is trying to respond to,” Thompson said.
Rep. Henry Cuellar,D-Texas,said,”You can have the best plans on one of your shelves. That doesn't help anything.”
Robert J. Sica,the Secret Service special agent in charge of the National Threat Assessment Center,has done research on students who plan or commit shootings.
“Mental illness is a product of an assassin,” Sica said. He added that research “did not speak to gang violence” and that the Department of Homeland Security should focus its efforts on individuals.
“Attackers are looking to solve a problem,and they resort to violence to solve that problem,” Sica said. “Despite our best efforts,we will never be able to prevent every incident.”
Urban areas,which have larger school districts,require more funding,Kuzmich said. However,most school attacks at colleges and universities are taking place elsewhere.
“They have not happened in urban areas,” Rep. Bob Etheridge,D-N.C.,said. “They take place in isolated rural areas.”
Other witnesses focused on the communications gap.
“Parents do not know what they do not know,” said Kenneth Trump,president of National School Safety and Security Services,a Cleveland firm that consults with schools about safety. “Staffs and students are often not trained on these plans.”
Cornelia Ashby,director of education,workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office,surveyed disaster plans in all states and a sampling of school districts. She found that 32 states do require plans.
“Some plans are very elaborate,others were much simpler,” she said.
Thompson recommended a “standard preparedness.” He also noted that there is no federal oversight entity for colleges and universities. Committee members said that needs to be changed.
“If you don't know what you don't know,you don't know what you need to fix,” Etheridge said.
The committee recognized the shortage of programs and said it would make every effort to prevent and prepare for tragedies like those at Virginia Tech and Columbine,where two high school students killed 13 others before killing themselves in 1999.
“We're the custodians of children,” Thompson said. “We should do the best job possible.”