In the wake of legislative inaction on bipartisan legislation to create a school safety task force, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will create her own task force within the Arizona Department of Education.
The Arizona School Safety Task Force will craft a model school safety plan and serve as a “clearinghouse of resources” that can be distributed to schools and community partners, Hoffman said. It will include students and student organizations, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement, health professionals, counselors and others.
Hoffman, a Democrat, announced the plan on Monday at a Capitol press conference while flanked by Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee and teen activists from the Arizona chapter of the gun-control group March for Our Lives.
Advocates focused on mental health as a key aspect of the task force and of any school safety plan it crafts.
The plan is largely modeled on a task force proposed in House BIll 2597. The bill, which was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Daniel Hernandez and co-sponsored by more than a dozen lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Brophy McGee, would also have required school districts to create safe school plans that recognize and respond to “emotional or behavioral distress” in students.
Two House committees approved the bill. But it never received a hearing in the House Rules Committee, effectively killing it for the 2019 legislative session.
“While we wait for the legislature to address school safety, I’m thrilled to begin working on bipartisan, comprehensive solutions that uplift and empower our schools, students and teachers to build safer educational communities,” Hoffman said.
Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said school safety is about more than just brick-and-mortar decisions. She said it involves issues like bullying, cyberbullying and student mental health, and must deal with “things that can’t be seen at first glance but can be felt when one walks onto a school campus. It’s a school culture, which must be built with as much care as the school itself.”
March For Our Lives, which formed in the aftermath of the February 2018 shooting that killed 17 students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has primarily focused its energies on advocating for gun control legislation. But Jordan Harb, the executive director of the group’s Arizona chapter and a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa, said March For Our Lives Arizona is shifting its attention to a more attainable goal.
Harb said March For Our Lives spoke with students from across the state about what makes them feel safe in their schools, and while issues like gun control and police brutality came up often, an almost universal concern was mental health. He cited not just school shootings, but issues like suicide, noting that a student at his high school committed suicide during the current school year.
Hoffman said she hopes to have the task force’s membership set by the end of summer, and estimated that it could have its recommendations finished by the end of the 2019-20 school year. Brophy McGee said she believes the task force will work quickly enough that the legislature will have time next session to take action, if need be. And if not, Hoffman said the task force will still be effective with any kind of accompanying legislation action.
Hoffman said there is more work to be done on school safety besides the task force. She urged lawmakers to include more funding in the next budget for school counselors, noting that Arizona’s ratio of students to counselors, which stands at 905:1, is the worst in the United States.