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Arizona lawmakers pitch plans to stop gun violence at school

Arizona lawmakers may agree they’ve had enough when it comes to gun violence in schools, but agreeing on what will be enough — if anything — to protect students is trickier.

Even if they manage to agree, the money just isn’t there.  It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Arizona is giving its curriculum a costly makeover.

At most, school safety funding will probably inch closer to what used to be the status quo.

Here’s a round up of some of the plans so far.

THE GOVERNOR’S APPROACH:

Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan seeks $3.6 million for the Department of Education’s school resource officer program. This would bring the program’s total funding to $11.4 million. The program’s highest level of funding was $15.5 million. Brewer’s plan would add 80-or-so-officers to the current 104, according to the Department of Education. That’s a far cry from the number needed to provide armed guards at each of Arizona’s more than 1,700 schools.

John Huppenthal, the state superintendent of public instruction, said Brewer’s plan doesn’t cut it. It’s “woefully inadequate,” he wrote in an email. Such scant funding, he wrote, would make it, “impossible to fairly determine the few that would be best served by a resource officer.”

REP. CHAD CAMPBELL’S PROPOSAL:

Campbell, D-Phoenix, has the plan that promises the most but faces the greatest odds.

He thinks a lot of things need to come together in order to protect schools.

His HB 2374 asks for more school resource officers, doubles the number of counselors, requires and pays for schools to do a threat assessment and creates a safety fund that would allow schools to get cash for their individual safety needs.

Things look troubling though, said Campbell. His bill took three weeks to be assigned to a committee. It’s also double-assigned, making it less likely it will move onward. 

The price tag?

A total of $160 million to take school safety through Fiscal Year 2016. It would require $58 million out of this year’s budget.

Getting money for school safety could be a “real challenge,” said Andrea Dalessandro, D-Sahuarita, because of the state’s transition to Common Core Standards, the new curriculum Arizona is adopting along with 45t other states. It’s a move that will require significant technology upgrades and training to make it work.

Brewer anticipates the switch costing $61.5 million.

Dalessandro said she wants to make sure that the rural communities in her district, which includes southern Pima County and all of Santa Cruz County, will have the training and upgrades needed.

The Legislature could probably fund both sufficiently if it just focused on hiring more school counselors, said Angela Robinson, president of the Arizona School Counselors Association. She said she supports the school resource officer program 100 percent, but that adding more is just putting a band-aid on the problem. Student-to-counselor ratios have to improve, she said.

Arizona is one of the lowest ranking when it comes to the counselor-to-student ratio. In the 2010-2011 school year there were 861 students to every one counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association. The association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.

Will Campbell’s plan achieve that ratio?

No.

“We can’t get it to that ratio right now. There is no way financially, we are just so far behind,” Campbell said.

The Sierra Vista Unified School District has half the counselors it did in 2008. There’s no doubt they need them, but it isn’t the funding Brett Agenbroad, the superintendent of Sierra Vista Unified School District, is after. He wants the money from Campbell’s safety fund for things like doors with keycards.

“[Rep. Campbell] may have gone a little bit overboard on the funding for counselors, especially when I need money to keep the counselors safe,” Agenbroad said.

Robinson has a vested interest in school safety not just because of her experience as a counselor but because her father, Dorwan Stoddard, was killed and her mother was shot three times during the Jan. 8 shooting that severely wounded Gabrielle Giffords.

With Jared Lee Loughner, Robinson said she wonders, “Why didn’t this kid get help?”

School counselors know the Loughners in a school because they pop up, she said. If there isn’t a counselor in the school, no one follows up on the children that need help, she said.

“We are the pulse of the school,” Robinson said. “Your school counselor knows every student in the school.”

SEN. CRANDALL’S FUNDING PLAN:

Sen. Rich Crandall’s, R-Mesa, SCR 1017 would give more money to school resource officers and counselors by taking the excess Citizens Clean Elections Commission money. Right now, the leftovers go to the general fund.  In 2011, $10 million went into the general fund and in 2010 $20 million.

It’s not a quick fix. Schools wouldn’t be able to cash in until 2015.

CRANDALL’S SECOND BILL, REP. STEVENS’ PLAN:

Crandall also has another bill, SB 1325, that would allow schools with fewer than 600 students to arm a teacher or staff member, provided the school is 30 minutes and 20 miles from law enforcement and doesn’t have a resource officer.

Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, is also looking at a bill that would let teachers carry.

Stevens is working on a National Rifle Association backed bill that would let school employees volunteer to be trained to protect their school.

Taking up arms is an idea that makes many close to the issue uneasy.

Richard Rundhaug, the superintendent of Willcox Unified School District, which has one school resource officer, said he believes only a police officer should have a firearm on school grounds.

Rundhaug, said that while he is a gun owner, he would have trouble in a high-stakes situation weighing if his accuracy was good enough to fire. He said that he would hate to put his staff in that position as, “that’s not why an educator went into education.”

Steve Yoder, principal of Valley Union High School in Elfrida, said a school resource officer would be welcome but he doesn’t think arming a school employee is a good idea.

“Staff members have enough things that they are already doing,” Yoder said. “Even in a situation that is very life-threatening it would be very difficult for teachers to harm students.”

The National Association of School Resource Officers doesn’t support arming teachers or staff, said the group’s president Kevin Quinn, who is a working school resource officer in Arizona. Police have to go through extensive amounts of physical and emotional training throughout their entire careers, he said. In addition to the training all police go through, school resource officers also go through a basic 40-hour training course.

“We’re not just a cop standing in a hallway waiting for something bad to happen,” Quinn said. School resource officers learn how to work with staff, do crime prevention and teach law-related education.

There’s a mindset that police develop that makes them able to handle a crisis that is essential, he said.

Stevens compared the program to volunteering to be a soccer coach. Not everyone has to be one and not everyone is qualified.

“There was a lot of concern that not every teacher wants to carry a weapon,” Stevens said. “I don’t want to give it to somebody that doesn’t want to carry a weapon.”

Regardless of what the Legislature decides, Agenbroad said his district would find a way to keep students safe. That might mean going to the local hardware store to see if they will donate materials for new fencing. It might also mean rallying parents to raise funds.

While the Legislature may not have a lot of cash to play with, Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, doesn’t buy the idea that they will have to choose whether or not to slight school safety or the state’s curriculum change.

“From an educator standpoint that’s what we call a false choice,” Morrill said. “It’s totally unfair and it shows absolutely no priority for students’ well being.”

 

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