Recovery

Ohio Wants to Improve School Security After Florida Shootings, but Officials Have no Plan Yet

Leaders of both the Ohio House and Senate say they want to sift through a few proposals and gather suggestions from experts to fit into bills in the next few weeks.

by Patrick O'Donnell, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland / March 5, 2018

(TNS) - Ohio officials want to do more to help protect students in schools from attacks like the 2012 Chardon High School shootings or the recent shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

They just don't have an immediate plan.

Leaders of both the Ohio House and Senate say they want to sift through a few proposals and gather suggestions from experts to fit into bills in the next few weeks.

"As with any issue our members are open to dialogue," Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, told reporters recently.

The Ohio School Boards Association hopes legislators will offer more money to improve security - and help troubled students before they snap.

"Funding in a variety areas is what our members want," he said. "Be that for mental health and or safety and security, to name a few."

Teachers want stricter gun restrictions. The Ohio Federation of Teachers has asked the state legislature for a "ban on tactical assault weapons and fully-automatic weapons to protect the human rights and safety of students and school personnel."

Teachers also asked legislators to require more intensive background checks and to increase the minimum age to buy a gun to 21.

Gov. John Kasich proposed six changes to gun laws on Thursday that address some of the issues raised by the teachers union, though not all. Kasich's plan would improve background checks, make it easier to remove guns from people that pose a threat, and place limits on ammunition and gun alterations.

The most solid proposal on the table is House Bill 318, which could clear the way for future legislation to add more School Resource Officers - armed police officers that are stationed in schools to provide security and also mentor students.

But that bill is only an early step. While it defines what School Resource Officers do and what training they need, it does not add any money for schools to hire more. That could be proposed later, possibly in the next state budget next year.

"It is just the beginning of the conversation," said State Rep. Sarah LaTourette, a Chesterland Republican.

The bill was in the works long before the Florida shootings, largely at the request of the Chardon foundation created by coach Frank Hall, who chased the shooter out of the school. The foundation hopes to place officers in every school.

Since the Florida shootings, LaTourette said that goal is more urgent, as is adding lesser security features, like cameras or training, until the state can fund more officers.

"I'm not confident anymore that it (the bill) does enough," she said.

Ohio schools have already made several changes to school security after school shootings in Wickliffe in 1994, Cleveland in 2007 and Chardon. The Wickliffe shootings, in which a former student walked into Wickliffe Middle School with a shotgun, prompted schools to lock doors and have visitors request permission to enter.

The 2007 shootings at SuccessTech High School in Cleveland led the district to add more security officers and start a social and emotional learning curriculum to help students manage emotions and, hopefully, prevent any from lashing out violently again.

The Chardon shootings, which occurred six years ago last Tuesday, sparked a few changes, which accelerated later that year after shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn.

The legislature offered nearly $16 million in grants between 2013 and 2017 to help schools add better security at their entrances as well as better emergency communications systems.

Attorney General Mike DeWine pressed schools to file the safety plans and conduct drills state law mandates. Several schools had lagged on preparing those plans, but DeWine's office said that "virtualy all" schools have now filed them.

The legislature in 2014 also allowed schools to ask voters for new taxes just for security issues.

Only one district, the tiny Millcreek West Unity schools in the northwest corner of the state, has taken advantage of that tax. In 2014, voters there approved a 0.9-mill levy to pay for school resource officers - two officers splitting one position - at that district's only school.

"It was very strongly supported," Superintendent Larry Long said of that levy. "We wanted to have a School Resource Officer instead of arming staff to secure our building."

More districts in Ohio also now allow certain staff to carry guns in schools, which President Donald Trump has called for. As Cleveland.com reported last week, both Republican candidates for Ohio governor also say they support arming teachers.

Ohio law allows school boards to let anyone carry a gun in schools with written authorization. Ohio is one of 10 states that allow this, in some form, according to the Education Commission of the States, a non-partisan research organization for state governments.

How many districts do so is unclear, however. Some districts are very public about it - like the Sidney schools near Cincinnati just profiled in the New York Times - while others do so quietly. Neither the state or school boards association track those numbers and even firearms advocates don't know.

"There's no solid numbers on it," said Rick Kaleda, the northeast Ohio representative of the Buckeye Firearms Association, which has offered training to school staff. Districts, he said, often approve people to have guns in school as part of their state-mandated safety plans, which are not released to the public.

That organization estimated in November that its school training program called FASTER Saves Lives, short for Faculty / Administrator Safety Training & Emergency Response, has trained about 200 school staff from 76 of Ohio's 88 counties. Those include Cuyahoga and all surrounding counties.

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