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School safety task force recommends armed officials, greater mental health focus in Missouri

  

Missouri schools need to employ armed officers and staff trained in youth mental health issues, a task force has recommended to Gov. Mike Parson

The Missouri School Safety Task Force, led by Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, was established by executive order in March. It released its strategic plan for school safety in the state on Wednesday. 

Overall, the task force concluded Missouri schools are “overwhelmingly very safe places for children to learn and grow.” But still, it identified more than a dozen areas where improvements could be made — including recommending school districts consider arming staff members. 

The task force encouraged schools to determine whether it’s “appropriate” for “specialized staff and non-specialized staff” be armed, particularly in areas where police response times could be longer. 

“[W]here economically feasible and embraced by local governance, schools should have the benefit of an armed School Resource Officer (SRO) or an armed School Protection Officer (SPO) in every school to provide an immediate response in the event of an active shooter situation,” the report said. 

“Preventing gun violence in Missouri’s schools is a goal we can all on agree on. To best protect students, teachers and school staff, we need to look at this from all angles and put in place comprehensive, proven strategies — including a number of strategies referenced in today’s report,” Karen Rogers, volunteer chapter leader with the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told The Missouri Times. “I’m grateful the committee highlighted the importance of responsible firearms storage, which is a crucial part of protecting kids and teens both inside and outside of school.”

Other suggestions included: 

  • All schools should establish emergency operation plans and share relevant portions with local law enforcement officials and first responders. Additionally, the state should establish Sunshine Law guidelines and protections for these plans, utilizing the Homeland Security exemption. 
  • At the state level, a school safety coordinator position should be established to “harmonize school safety efforts among state departments.” Additionally, a school safety advisory council could also be established. 
  • Students often told the task force they wanted greater involvement in school safety, the report concluded. It recommended schools create student-led safety advisory councils to provide input and a connection between pupils and staff. 
  • Schools need a more comprehensive school safety training manual and catalog of offerings so as not to “duplicate” some training efforts. Additionally, schools should consider more “creative” drills to hold. 

The task force also focused on mental and behavioral health in its report to Parson. 

“Although the presence of a mental illness may not be directly correlated to violence, trends with respect to youth mental illness are of great concern,” the report said. “There is an urgent need for effective prevention interventions and the ability to identify youth at-risk for mental illness in schools to connect them with needed treatment and services.” 

The task force recommended integrated mental health awareness into schools and ensuring “at-risk youths” have appropriate and timely access to care, particularly with substance abuse, academic help, and mentorships. 

The group also supported the creation of a lead state agency “to synchronize mental health, behavioral risk, and other related programs across state agencies.” 

School safety — particularly the contentious debate over arming officers or teachers in schools — has been a national conversation particularly since the Parkland school shooting

In February 2018, 17 students and staff members died when a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — one of the largest schools in Broward County, Florida — and opened fire. 

A federal school safety report commissioned by President Trump last year also recommended arming officials in schools. 

The Missouri legislature has approved $300,000 for school safety efforts for the Fiscal Year 2019. 

Aside from Kehoe, the Missouri School Safety Task Force included Department of Public Safety Director Sandy Karsten; Commissioner of Education Marjorie Vandeven, Department of Mental Health Director Mark Stringer, state Sen. Jeanie Riddle, state Rep. Jerome Barnes, Melissa Randol of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, Cole County Sheriff’s Department Cpt. Kevin Woodson, and Paul Fennewald of the Missouri Center for Education Safety. 

The task force held six meetings throughout the state after its conception. It also took additional input through surveys, online comments, a student session, and through other methods. 

“As a grandfather and as governor, I expect schools to be safe places from the time a student steps onto the bus in the morning, until he or she steps off in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I know from my time as a law enforcement officer that there are people in the world who seek to prey on those who are often unable to protect themselves,” Parson said when he signed the executive order establishing the task force. “As a state, we need to ensure we are providing the tools and guidance to help local education leaders make our schools as safe as possible.”