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NRA-backed task force unveils sweeping school safety proposal

April 02, 2013|By Melanie Mason

WASHINGTON — A National Rifle Assn.-backed task force unveiled a sweeping set of proposed school safety measures Tuesday, the gun rights group’s counterproposal to the spate of gun control bills introduced in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.

Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and drug czar under President George W. Bush, announced the National School Shield task force findings in a Washington D.C. news conference amid tight security. The 225-page report, the result of safety assessments at six private and public schools across the country, makes eight recommendations for school administrators, local, state and federal policymakers and the NRA.

Among them: an online self-assessment tool for each school to evaluate its own security gaps, improved coordination among the federal 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.  

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But the most attention-getting aspect of the plan is likely the proposed expansion of armed school personnel. In a news conference in December, Hutchinson said the NRA’s school safety plan would consist of “armed, trained, qualified school security personnel” drawn from local volunteers. On Tuesday, Hutchinson announced a model training program for selected armed school staff.

“This is not talking about all teachers,” Hutchinson said. “Teachers should teach, but if there is a personnel that has good experience, that has an interest in it and is willing to go through this training of 40 to 60 hours that is totally comprehensive, then that is an appropriate resource that a school should be able to utilize.” He later said the program would not rely on volunteers, as previously announced, after school superintendents expressed “great reluctance.”

President Obama, in his gun control proposals released in January, has also proposed an increase in the number of specially trained campus police, known as school resource officers

The announcement comes at a critical time for federal gun legislation. The Senate is set to take up a gun package next week that will include measures to address gun trafficking and expand background check requirements, as well as a school safety proposal that would provide $40 million in grants for school districts to  improve their security plans. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will also likely be considered next week as amendments to the bill.

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The centerpiece of the Senate proposals is the background check measure, the top priority for gun control advocates. The expansion of background checks has high public approval in polls, but Sen. Charles E.  Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the effort, has been unable 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 instead on improving the existing background check program.

The school safety report does not address expanding background checks, although Hutchinson acknowledged that armed school personnel, according to its proposal, would undergo a background check and between 40 and 60 hours of training.

“We have worked so hard and focused on this school safety report. We have not focused on the separate debate in Congress about firearms,” Hutchinson said.

“While that debate goes on, we’re trying to do something about school safety,” he added.

In the plan, the cost of these measures would primarily fall to states and local school districts, but Tony Lambraia, a task force member and chief executive of Phoenix RBT Solutions, said the full price tag attached to the program had not been set.

When asked how to justify the cost while many school districts face cash shortages, Hutchinson replied, “You justify it because it’s necessary.”

Mark Mattioli, a Newtown, Conn., parent whose son James was killed in the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, also spoke briefly at the news conference.

Mattioli has opposed new firearms laws and instead has called for more efforts to improve the nation’s mental health system. His stance is at odds with other families of Newtown victims, several of whom have appeared at the White House and in television commercials to push for stricter laws. Obama will make a trip to the University of Hartford in Connecticut next week to make the case for gun measures.

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