The “School Safety And Law Enforcement Improvement Act”

It has now been nearly 10 months since the horrific incident at Virginia Tech resulted in the tragic deaths of 32 students and faculty members, and serious injuries to many other innocent victims.  During that time, we have witnessed a barrage of new incidents involving threatening conduct and, too often, deadly acts of violence at our schools and college campuses nationwide. 

Just in the last few days tragedy has struck at one of our nation’s high schools and on a university campus.  Today’s press reports indicate that a student at Mitchell High School in Memphis, Tennessee is in critical condition after a violent incident in the school’s cafeteria.  Just this past Friday, a female student killed two other women, and then herself, inside a classroom on the campus of Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge.  This terrible incident could easily have been even more deadly: there were nearly 20 people in the classroom at the time.

The Senate has so far failed to take up and pass the School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007, S.2084, which the Judiciary Committee reported last September to help improve school safety.  This comprehensive legislation should be considered and passed without further delay.

In originating the bill over six months ago, the Judiciary Committee showed deference to Governor Tim Kaine and the task forces at work in Virginia, and sought to complement their work and recommendations.  Working with several Senators, including Senators Boxer, Reed, Specter, Feingold, Schumer, and Durbin, the Committee originated this bill and reported it at the start of the 2007 academic year.  My hope was that Congress would adopt these critical school safety improvements last fall.

Since this bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee, we have seen tragedy at Louisiana Technical College, Delaware State, University of Memphis, SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as incidents in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, to name just a few.  I, again, urge the Senate to proceed to consider this comprehensive package of school safety measures.  It includes sensible yet effective safety improvement measures supported by law enforcement across the country.  We should be doing all that we can to help.


Last October, a troubled student wearing a Fred Flintstone mask and carrying a rifle through campus was arrested at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, prompting authorities to lock down the campus for three hours.  The day after that incident, an armed 17-year-old on the other side of the country in Oroville, California, held students hostage at Las Plumas High School, also resulting in a lock-down.  Around that same time, an armed student suspected of plotting a Columbine-style attack on fellow high school students was arrested in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  The students in these situations were lucky and escaped without injury.   


University of Memphis student Taylor Bradford was not so lucky.  He was killed on campus last September in what university officials believe was a targeted attack.  He was 21 years old.  Shalita Middleton was not so lucky.  She died last October from injuries she sustained during the Delaware State incident.  She was 17 years old.  Nathaniel Pew was not so lucky.  He was wounded at Delaware State.  High school teachers Michael Grassie and David Kachadourian and students Michael Peek and Darnell Rodgers – all of whom were wounded by a troubled student at SuccessTech Academy last October – were not so lucky.  And the two female students killed this past Friday in Baton Rouge were not so lucky.


The School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act responds directly to incidents like these by addressing the problem of violence in our schools in several ways.  The bill authorizes federal assistance for programs to improve the safety and security of our schools and institutions of higher education, provides equitable benefits to law enforcement serving those institutions including bulletproof vests, and funds pilot programs to develop cutting-edge prevention and intervention programs for our schools.  The bill also clarifies and strengthens two existing statutes – the Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act and the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act – which are designed to improve public safety. 


Specifically, the bill would improve the safety and security of students both at the elementary and secondary school level and on college and university campuses.  The K-12 improvements are drawn from a bill that Senator Boxer introduced last April, and I want to thank Senator Boxer for her hard work on this issue.  The improvements include increased funding for much-needed infrastructure changes to improve security as well as the establishment of hotlines and tip-lines, which will enable students to report potentially dangerous situations to school administrators before they occur.


These improvements can save lives.  After the four students and teachers were wounded at SuccessTech Academy, the press reported that parents had been petitioning to get a metal detector installed and additional security personnel added, and that the guard who was previously assigned to the school had been removed three years ago.  In fact, at the time, the entire City of Cleveland had just 10 metal detectors that rotated throughout the city’s more than 100 schools.  Title I of the bill would enhance the ability of school districts to apply for and receive grant money to fund the installation of metal detectors and the training and hiring of security personnel to keep our kids safe. 


To address the new realities of campus safety in the wake of Virginia Tech and more recent college incidents, Title I also creates a matching grant program for campus safety and security to be administered out of the COPS Office of the Department of Justice.  The grant program would allow institutions of higher education to apply, for the first time, directly for federal funds to make school safety and security improvements.  The program is authorized to be appropriated at $50,000,000 for the next two fiscal years.  While this amounts to just $3 per student each year, it will enable schools to more effectively respond to dangerous situations on campus.

The bill would also make sworn law enforcement officers who work for private institutions of higher education and rail carriers eligible for death and disability benefits, and for funds administered under the Byrne Grant program and the bulletproof vest partnership grant program.  Providing this equitable treatment is in the best interest of our nation’s educators and students and will serve to place the support of the Federal Government behind the dedicated law enforcement officers who serve and protect private colleges and universities nationwide.  I commend Senator Jack Reed for his leadership in this area.


The bill helps law enforcement by making improvements to the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2003 (LEOSA).  These amendments to existing law will streamline the system by which qualified retired and active officers can be certified under LEOSA.  It serves us all when we permit qualified officers, with a demonstrated commitment to law enforcement and no adverse employment history, to protect themselves, their families, and their fellow citizens wherever those officers may be. 


The bill focuses on prevention as well, by incorporating the PRECAUTION Act at the request of Senators Feingold and Specter.  This provision authorizes grants to develop prevention and intervention programs for our schools.


Finally, the bill incorporates the Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act of 2007, at the request of Senator Kennedy.   


The Senate should move forward and act.  The Virginia Tech Review Panel – a body commissioned by Governor Kaine to study the Virginia Tech tragedy – recently issued its findings based on a 4-month long investigation of the incident and its aftermath.  This bill would adopt a number of recommendations from the Review Panel aimed at improving school safety.  We must not miss this opportunity to implement these initiatives nationwide, and to take concrete steps to ensure the safety of our kids.  I hope the Senate will promptly move forward to invest in the safety of our students and better support law enforcement officers across the country by considering and passing the School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007, S.2084.


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David Carle: 202-224-3693