October 17, 2006
Dear Missouri Education Leaders:
In recent days, all of us have been shocked once again by reports of violence and near violence in elementary and secondary schools around the country and, most recently, here in Missouri. During my nearly fourteen years as Missouri's Attorney General, we have worked hard to strengthen our laws and initiate solid policies to make our schools safer. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, and resist gimmicky approaches that threaten the safety of students and teachers alike.
Often it seems that school violence is as sudden and unpredictable as a bolt of lightning. But, as with dangerous weather, we know that careful planning, common sense and training can lessen the risks. The recent courageous actions of educators and administrators in Joplin are a testament to this approach. We should all use these current events as a catalyst to review school safety policies and contingency plans, and to re-establish communication between and among faculty, students, parents and law enforcement on this important issue. As a starting point, I have set forth below some of the major steps we have taken that have helped keep our schools safe.
More than a decade ago, I worked with many of you to overhaul Missouri's laws to give educators the tools they need and want to make our schools safer. In 1995, with overwhelming bipartisan support, state law was changed to allow juveniles to be tried as adults in appropriate cases involving serious and violent crimes, and requiring one-year suspensions - or assignments to an alternative school - for children found bringing firearms to school.
In 1996, the Missouri Safe Schools Act was passed, again with overwhelming bipartisan support; 153-3 in the House of Representatives and 31-0 in the Senate. Educators, administrators, law enforcement, and youth advocates came together to require mandatory reporting of school safety violations to law enforcement. Just as important, however, were the legal protections enacted for those who report these incidents in good faith. State laws now stand behind teachers who must report even the presence of a weapon to administrators, and the local sheriff or police must respond. School boards, superintendents and principals were given the authority immediately to suspend or expel students that pose a threat of harm to themselves or others - and protections were enacted to prevent troubled children from being shuttled from district to district.
The Missouri Safe Schools Act has made an impact. In the 1996-97 school year, 318 students were expelled for bringing firearms to school; the second worst record in the nation. By the 2002-03 school year, however, 62 such expulsions were reported. This 81% decrease is the direct result of educators and law enforcement working together - and it has made our schools much safer.
Following the adoption of the Missouri Safe Schools Act in 1996, I was one of twelve national delegates, including U.S. Attorneys General Thornburgh and Reno, to an international conference on juvenile law and youth violence where I had the opportunity to share our important accomplishments. In 2002, working with educators and administrators, my office published a School Safety Advisory giving clear guidance on the use of suspicion-based and suspicion-less searches of students, their lockers and effects. These guidelines have lead to reasonable protocols for keeping schools free from weapons and controlled substances, including point-of-entry inspections and "locker sweeps." This School Safety Advisory is available at no charge at our website at www.ago.mo.gov, under State and Local Law Enforcement / Other Publications.
During the last fourteen years, Resource Officers, D.A.R.E. Officers and other programs have made law enforcement officials part of the educational environment. These programs have been remarkably successful not merely because of the presence of well-trained, professional peace officers in schools, but because children establish relationships with these officers - relationships that can and have changed the way these children relate to law enforcement throughout their lives.
Those of us in law enforcement, and those of you in education, understand that the fight for school safety has to be fought one troubled student at a time. Criminal penalties and expulsion can and must play a role, but such results are not victories - just limited defeats. It is not enough merely to keep the most challenging children from hurting themselves or others. Alternative schools, where troubled kids can learn in structured, individualized settings away from the regular classrooms, are proving essential in finding ways to rescue kids once thought to be hopeless. Moreover, alternative schools promote a safe and effective educational environment for all of our children by removing from the mainstream classrooms those few students who command the most attention and divert teachers from their role as educators.
But alternative schools and aggressive prevention programs - which were once the hope of the future - are now becoming abandoned promises of the past. Funding for alternative schools under the Missouri Safe Schools Act has been slashed by nearly 70% since FY 2003, with the result that some alternative schools and prevention programs have had to be discontinued altogether. Our alternative schools now serve 23% fewer students than they did at their high water mark during the 2002-03 school year. In the past, I have called for increasing the number of years for which "start up" funding is available to encourage new alternative schools, as well as an increase in the overall funding available for alternative schools and prevention programs. I am renewing that call now, and ask that you join me.
In other critical areas, gains that we have made toward student safety have been rolled back. After careful study, the General Assembly in 2000 made it a crime to possess a gun on school premises - a bill that passed unanimously in both legislative bodies of the General Assembly.
Thus, the thoughtful, deliberate and collaborative efforts of the past are more and more being replaced by policies that are being put together with inadequate study or inadequate funding. Support for local control of schools and education has been eroded by state officials with a "top-down" management style that would even mandate what percentage of district funds must be spent where, and how.
In recent days, the Governor has gone so far as to suggest that teachers carrying guns in our children's classrooms is an "interesting idea, worthy of discussion." Though it may be obvious to you that having more guns in schools makes schools more dangerous, that self-evident truth is not obvious to those who neither work in education nor law enforcement, nor take the time to listen to those who do. Such an idea is not "interesting," it has been "studied," and it cannot be allowed to become law. In the words of former Senator Harold Caskey, recipient of the National Rifle Association's Defender of Justice Award, "In 2000 the Missouri legislature passed a law designed to prohibit guns in schools and on school property, and we as a state need to stand by that law. This is no time to back down."
We have a track record on school safety in Missouri on which we can and must build. What is needed now is a prudent and sustained effort to expand legal tools when necessary, expand legal protections for teachers and administrators where needed, and expand funding for alternative schools and prevention training that have been shown to be effective. I look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve the essential goals of increasing student safety and creating the best educational environment for Missouri's students.
Jeremiah W. (JAY) Nixon