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The Senate Gun Bill: What It Would Mean for School Safety, Mental Health Efforts

The bipartisan gun safety bill under consideration by the Senate would provide additional funding for school mental health and safety efforts and would make it easier to bill Medicaid for school-based services.

Senators released the full text of the bill, known as the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, this week, adding more-specific language to a compromise negotiated by a group of 20 senators after the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Fourteen Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues in a procedural vote to advance the bill Tuesday night. Though the measure’s new gun restrictions fall short of some activists’ demands, that vote signals it may have the support needed for final passage.

Senate leaders have pledged to move quickly to pass the bill, allowing President Joe Biden to sign it into law as soon as next week.

Notably, the bill would prohibit the use of federal education funding “to train or equip any person with dangerous weapons in schools.” After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Trump administration had floated the idea of using Title IV-A funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act to train and arm teachers. After the Uvalde shooting, some Republican lawmakers have pushed for more armed adults in schools.

While prominent Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, support the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the National Rifle Association has spoken out against some of its provisions, like support for “red flag laws,” which allow courts to suspend a person’s access to guns if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Other parts of the bill, including those that deal with violence prevention and mental health, have attracted less controversy. Educators sounded the alarm about climbing rates of depression and anxiety among students before the COVID-19 pandemic, but school interruptions and stress associated with the public health crisis have brought increased public attention to those concerns.

Here are some key components of the bill.

A funding boost for school mental health and student well-being

The bill would provide provide $1 billion in additional funding through Title IV-A of the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program.

That program, currently funded at about $1.2 billion, provides money for a “well-rounded education,” to improve conditions for learning through school climate and safety initiatives, and to fund educational technology.

The bill would provide an additional $50 million for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports after-school and summer programs.

A pathway to more “hardening” of schools?

Republican lawmakers often call for “school hardening” after mass shootings, saying physical security measures and on-site armed adults and law enforcement will help deter violence.

But schools have already ramped up such measures since the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. And experts on school safety say human factors, like creating an environment where students feel safe sharing concerns or potential threats, are more crucial for keeping schools safe.

The Senate bill may open a door for some school security spending by providing $300 million in funding through the STOP School Violence Act, a federal grant program created after the Parkland shooting.

That funding would flow through Department of Justice programs that are currently collectively funded at about $133 million to pay for school security hardware, training for educators on school safety practices, and violence prevention efforts.

The Senate bill would also codify a federal clearinghouse of “best practices” that was created after the Parkland shooting.

But, as some school safety experts noted Wednesday, there is active debate about what makes schools safe. Some policies included in the current Department of Homeland Security-administered clearinghouse—such as the use of “run, hide, fight” shooter drills— are not supported by all researchers.

Using Medicaid to pay for school-based services

The bill would direct the U.S. Department of Education to coordinate with other federal agencies to assist schools in billing Medicaid to cover services provided at in-school clinics and by schools themselves.

That would include services provided in compliance with students’ individual education plans under federal special education law. Advocacy organizations like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, have said such reimbursements could help schools manage the costs of special education programs.

If it becomes law, the legislation would also provide $50 million in grants to states “for the purpose of implementing, enhancing, or expanding the provision of assistance through school-based entities” under Medicaid and state childrens’ health insurance programs, known as CHIP.

That could help schools provide more mental health services through partnerships with community providers or telehealth treatments.

Expanding the pipeline of school mental health providers

School leaders have said an increase in funding alone isn’t enough to help them adequately address students’ mental health needs. Even with a boost of aid provided through federal COVID-19 relief efforts, they still struggle to recruit adequate numbers of counselors, social workers, and school psychologists.

The Senate bill would expand two existing programs designed to widen that pipeline and address workforce issues. It would provide $500 million each for the School Based Mental Health Services Grant Program and the School Based Mental Health Service Professionals Demonstration Grant. Those programs, which are currently funded at about $10 million each, help states and schools pilot innovative ways to recruit and train student support personnel.

Building awareness of mental health concerns

The bill would provide $240 million over four years for Project AWARE, an acronym for Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education. The grant, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, received $107 million in the most recent federal budget.

Project AWARE provides grants to states to fund programs that build students’ understanding of mental health concerns and when to seek support, that help educators identify and respond to mental health concerns, and that help connect students and their families to needed services.

Funding provided through the Senate bill would include $28 million set aside for school-based responses to student trauma.

New gun restrictions

The bill’s most prominent provisions relate to guns. It would:

  • Create an “enhanced review process” for gun buyers 21 or younger.
  • Close the “boyfriend loophole” by prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a domestic violence restraining order from purchasing guns through the federal background check system.
  • Clarify who must register as a federally licensed firearms dealer, which would subject sales to background checks and “crack down” on criminals who traffic guns.
  • Provide resources and support to help states and tribes create “red-flag laws,” which allow courts to suspend an individual’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Nineteen states already have such laws, but educators and law enforcement officials have said it’s not always clear what counts as threatening behavior worthy of intervention.

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