Senator Newton: For Safer Schools, We Need More Than Metal Detectors

It is my pleasure to welcome all K-12 students in the Anoka-Hennepin, Spring Lake Park, and Centennial public school districts back to the classroom. Back-to-school season is a fresh opportunity to set new goals, make new friends, and celebrate new academic and extracurricular achievements. All of those things, however, are not possible if Minnesota’s youth do not feel safe as they sit in class.

In response to mass shootings that occurred just months ago at high schools in Texas and Florida, students in Minnesota organized peaceful demonstrations at our state Capitol, held one-on-one meetings with legislators, and attracted significant media attention. I encourage them to remain engaged in the political process and help legislators shape next session’s school safety budget and related public policies.

This year’s legislative session resulted in a $25 million appropriation for grants that school districts can tap to finance security improvements to their facilities, such as installing bulletproof glass or special building entry systems. When the grant application period began on August 29, the Minnesota Department of Education received more than $250 million in requests. You do the math.

Facility improvements absolutely need to be part of any school safety strategy. The amount of grant applications alone indicates that schools have significant unmet needs. At the same time, we know that a metal detector cannot counsel a teenager through a mental health crisis. Licensed school support staff, such as counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and chemical dependency counselors, are trained to spot warning signs, intervene, and assist our children in securing the professional help they need to live healthier lives.

Minnesota has the fourth-worst ratio of students to counselors at roughly one counselor for every 750 students. A middle school counselor for the Anoka-Hennepin School District recently told KARE 11 News that she is responsible for overseeing 1,000 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-1.

Counselors from our largest high schools tell me they deal almost exclusively with crisis situations, citing students who are suicidal, bullied, and struggling with dysfunctional homes, addiction, and sexual identity. They also tell me that among the students they see, they detect some of the same traits evidenced by the school shooter in Parkland, Florida. In identifying and working with these students and getting them the help they need, our counselors provide the first line of defense against violence in our schools. However, as they deal with crisis after crisis, they do not have the time to provide the educational and career guidance for a large number of students in our schools.

In short, the Legislature needs to provide adequate funding to ensure that every school is physically safe and secure. Also, we must increase the number of school counselors and wrap-around support personnel to appropriately respond to any crisis while also guaranteeing that each and every student is counseled on a regular basis regarding their educational and career goals.

Please contact me to share your questions, comments, and ideas as it relates to school safety or any other issue. Get in touch by phone at 651-296-2556 or by email at sen.jerry.newton@senate.mn.

 

This commentary was originally published in ABC Newspapers.

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Jerry Newton is a state senator who represents Blaine, Coon Rapids, and Spring Lake Park. He is the Ranking Member of the Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and a member of the following committees: Family Care and Aging; and Higher Education Finance and Policy. Sen. Newton is also a member of the Legislative Permanent School Fund Commission and the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission. A high-resolution photo of Sen. Newton is available for download here.

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