Dayton offers $21 million plan to enhance school safety

MARSHALL — On Wednesday, as thousands of high school students marched from their classrooms to the State Capitol to call for safer schools and reduced gun violence, Gov. Mark Dayton held a news conference to announce his proposed Safe and Secure School Act, which would provide $20.9 million in funding for safety and security enhancements along with mental health improvements in Minnesota schools.

According to a news release, Dayton’s proposed Safe and Secure Schools Act would provide $15.9 million in needed revenue to enhance safety for students, teachers, parents and staff throughout the state. The Associated Press in its coverage of event suggested that bulletproof glass and secure entrances were among potential improvements.

“Additional funding to address school safety needs and projects would be welcomed wholeheartedly,” Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Scott Monson said. “A key with new or additional funding — as Governor Dayton has proposed and for which I give him credit — is that it must be dedicated to safety-related expenses. Given the opportunity for new funding for school safety, every school district will find productive ways to improve the safety of their sites.”

Recent school shootings have prompted action in Minnesota and across the nation.

“There’s no question that the safety of our students and staff cannot be overlooked,” Monson said. “We can’t — and don’t — assume ‘it won’t happen here,” and our students and staff need to feel safe coming to school every day.”

Dayton’s proposal also includes an additional $5 million for school-based grants which would provide mental health service to students who need added support. The funding would be an additional investment — more than $13.5 million in school-based mental health programs has already been invested during Dayton’s leadership — specifically for improving access to mental health care for children and youth who are uninsured or underinsured. The state has a modest budget surplus — projected at $329 million — which could help pay for plan.

“Nearly every school district has seen a staggering increased need for mental health services for students,” Monson said. “New funding to provide increased services — through additional counselors or social workers — can be a productive way of proactively recognizing and addressing safety concerns before they happen. With increased and dedicated funding, increased staffing could help schools to even better connect with students, develop a trusting environment and encourage students to report concerns they have or something they hear or see before something goes wrong.”

School safety has been increasingly highlighted over the past few years and was recently thrust into the spotlight again after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17 students and staff. The tragedy underscored the importance of protecting Minnesota children and reducing gun violence.

“Minnesota students, parents and teachers need all of our schools to be safe places to learn and grow,” Dayton said. “Our mission is to prevent every school shooting. To succeed, we must take action now. I urge the Legislature to act this session to improve school safety and reduce gun violence in Minnesota.”

Media reports reveal that at least 21 threats have been made against Minnesota schools since the Florida shooting three weeks ago. At least 879 Minnesotans have died as a result of criminal gun violence since two students were killed in the Rocori High School shooting in 2003. The number includes 10 people who were killed in a 2005 shooting at Red Lake Senior High School.

Dayton’s proposed intervention and support for expelled students attempts to ensure that students who might be a danger to themselves or others do not slip through the cracks.

The Safe and secure Schools Act would clarify the responsibility of school districts to provide additional services and complete a threat assessment before expelling students. Improved data sharing between school districts is another component of the proposal.

“Being able to share information about expelled students with/to other districts is currently difficult to do with the legal requirements and limits now in place,” Monson said. “As Governor Dayton proposed, easier and more complete information sharing about expelled students could, and most likely would, be more proactive in keeping schools safe.”

Dayton put accountability firmly on the shoulder’s of the state, saying that the state is responsible for preventing a tragedy in Minnesota schools. Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, responded after the Safe and Secure School Act was introduced on Wednesday.

“At first glance, there appear to be areas of common ground between the governor and the Legislature,” Swedzinski said. “For example, the governor’s proposal has similarities to what the House’s Education Finance Committee has been discussing on topics such as mental health and physical security. Support for school security and mental health need to be at the top of our list on this issue and that is where the House is focusing. We are working this session to build on the progress we made by providing important funding for the School Safety Center and school-linked mental health grants — these are proposals that will help address this serious issue and enjoy significant bipartisan support.”

It is unclear yet whether Republicans will offer similar support for additional legislation supported by Dayton, a Democrat. The governor is separately calling for stricter gun laws, such as expanding background checks and raising the age to buy assault weapons to 21. The background requirement protects the second amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners, while making it more difficult for criminals to access guns, Dayton said.

According to a news release, Dayton also supports measures proposed by state legislators to clarify that Minnesota law already bars the sale and use of bump fire stocks — the kind the Las Vegas shooter used to kill 58 people and injure 851 others in October 2017.

Another proposal is referred to as the “red flag law” for individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others. Dayton supports measures to allow family members and law enforcement personnel to ask a judge to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if they have documented evidence that the person poses a serious threat to themselves or others.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, firearm homicides are the leading cause of violent deaths for Minnesotans under the age of 9, while firearm suicides are the leading cause of violent death for all Minnesotans.

“I applaud Governor Dayton for focusing on solutions to the school safety challenge,” Monson said. “He continues to be an advocate for what’s best for students, and I hope he and his colleagues in St. Paul are able to reach and agreement that allows school districts to improve school safety.”

While gun violence remains a challenge in the state and throughout the nation, the measures Dayton proposed face stiff odds in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Already this session, a House committee turned back bills sponsored by Democrats. One of those bills was to expand background check rules, while another was similar to Dayton’s proposal about giving family members a way to suspend gun ownership of a person they fear may harm themselves or others.

“Regardless of what happens or does not happen with school safety at the Capitol, it is important to remember that school districts, including ours, take the safety of our students and staff seriously,” Monson said. “We will continue to do all that we can to keep our students and staff safe and look at how we can do even better in this area.”