Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, announces… (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON— A National Rifle Assn.-backed task force unveiled a sweeping set of proposed school safety measures Tuesday, a counter to gun control bills introduced after the Connecticut mass shooting.
The most attention-getting recommendation: to train select school personnel to carry firearms. The task force steered away from an earlier NRA proposal to rely on volunteers to provide security.
Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush, announced the National School Shield task force findings in a Washington news conference amid tight security. The 225-page report makes eight recommendations for school administrators, local, state and federal policymakers, and the NRA.
Other suggestions include an online self-assessment tool for each school to evaluate security gaps, improved coordination among the departments of Education, Justice and Homeland Security, and a pilot program on threat assessment and mental health.
"This report includes everything from best practices to technology to a review of surveillance," Hutchinson said, adding that the recommendations were independent of the gun rights group.
The NRA's school safety initiative was announced in a news conference in December, one week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six educators dead. Initially, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called for mobilizing current and retired law enforcement, security guards and private citizens to place an armed guard in every school.
On Tuesday, Hutchinson said school superintendents had expressed "great reluctance" about armed volunteers.
"That's not the best solution," he said. He also emphasized that the training should not be required for teachers.
President Obama also has proposed increasing the number of specially trained campus police, known as school resource officers. That has faced resistance from various groups, including the National Parent Teacher Assn., which wants to keep firearms out of schools. The president plans to visit the University of Hartford in Connecticut next week to make the case for his gun measures.
The task force's announcement comes at a crucial time: The Senate is set to take up legislation next week that will address gun trafficking and expanded background checks, as well as a school safety proposal that would provide $40 million in grants for school districts to improve their security plans.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the effort, has so far failed to secure a bipartisan compromise that would ensure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. The NRA has vigorously opposed near-universal background checks, arguing that lawmakers should focus on improving existing background checks.
Although the school safety report does not address expanding background checks, Hutchinson acknowledged that armed school personnel would undergo background checks and receive between 40 and 60 hours of training.
Hutchinson said later on CNN that he personally was open to expanding background checks, as long as it did not impede gun transfers between friends or neighbors.
The NRA took a "wait and see" approach to the task force's proposals. "We need time to digest the full report," the group said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the report included "potentially radical elements, including getting the federal government in the business of supplying arms to teachers, without any evidence that doing so would make children safer."
In the plan, the cost of the measures would primarily fall on states and local school districts. Tony Lambraia, a task force member and chief executive of Phoenix RBT Solutions, said the program's full price tag had not been set.
Asked to justify the cost at a time many school districts are facing funding shortages, Hutchinson replied, "You justify it because it's necessary."
Mark Mattioli of Newtown, whose son, James, was killed in the Dec. 14 rampage, also spoke briefly at the news conference. He called the recommendations "real solutions that will make our kids safer."
Mattioli has opposed new firearms laws and called for improving the mental health system. His stance is at odds with that of several families of other Newtown victims, several of whom have appeared at the White House and in television commercials to advocate stricter laws.
"As parents, we send our kids off to school and there are certain expectations. And obviously at Sandy Hook those expectations weren't met," Mattioli said. "Politics need to be set aside here."