EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Sen. Al Franken visited a middle school on Tuesday to talk with administrators, safety experts and counselors to trade ideas on how to improve school safety just three weeks after the Newtown shootings.
The private session included proposals for tighter perimeter security, lockdown drills and more mental health professionals, Franken told reporters afterward. The Minnesota Democrat said he would bring the ideas back to Congress, but didn’t say what recommendations he would make.
“In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, we are looking at a lot of issues regarding school safety, regarding mental health,” said Franken, who has been working on legislation to bolster funding for mental health services in a variety of areas.
Issues of school safety, gun control and mental health have come to the fore since 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
President Obama has made cutting down on gun violence at priority in his second term. His plans could include increased mental health checks for those looking to buy a firearm. The National Rifle Association called for putting armed security guards in schools and the creation of a database of the mentally ill.
In Minnesota, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow teachers to carry weapons in the 2013 legislative session, which begins Tuesday.
Franken is co-sponsoring a bill to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, but was noncommittal about whether he supports renewing an assault weapons ban.
He said a high priority is making sure potential mental health issues are caught and treated early.
“We are not going to prevent every incident in the United States,” Franken said. “One of the things that we need to do better is identify mental health issues earlier in a child’s life.
According to Minnesota School Counselors Association, Minnesota has the second-lowest ratio of school counselors to students in the nation, with about one counselor for every 800 students.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the state’s budget woes have made it difficult to hire counselors and social workers at schools. MASA plans to push the Legislature for more money to do so in 2013.
During the news conference, educators were asked if allowing teachers to carry guns was another solution. Mark Parr, education director for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, is in opposition to armed teachers.
“I’m not sure that would be the exact answer,” said Parr. “I believe it’s the relationships with teachers that can make the most sustaining difference.”
Tom Steinmetz, COO and Program Director for the Washburn Center for Children, attended the meeting. His organization has eighteen therapists in eighteen public schools in three different districts.
“What we know is that at any given time about 20 percent of children qualify for a mental health diagnosis, but only about 1 and 5 of those children will ever get mental health treatment,” said Franken. “What we’ve also seen is that schools are where emerging mental health issues are identified.”
Steinmetz says nationally when public schools refer children with mental health issues for service only 15 percent get connected. He says by placing the therapist directly into the school they’ve increased the connection rate to about 85 percent.
Franken, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he’s pushed for more appropriations for school counselors since he joined the Senate in 2009. With more mental health professionals in schools, he said, there’s a better chance of stopping “someone who becomes a shooter, in a way that’s happened in so many of these shootings.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)