Stephenson High School students walk past DeKalb County SWAT officers outside the school Tuesday morning, Aug. 13, 2019. Officers burst into classrooms with guns drawn after a student reported seeing an armed classmate. The gun scare prompted a heavy police presence, road closures and a Level 3 lockdown at the school on Stephenson Road in Stone Mountain. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Federal school safety bill to provide funding, info on ‘best practices’

U.S. Sens. David Perdue (R-GA) and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced legislation on Monday for the first federally coordinated effort to redesign schools to improve overall safety.

Called the School Safety Clearinghouse Act, the bill focuses on best practices for school safety design and allocates a funding source to put those plans into motion.

So far this year, there have been 22 shootings at schools across the country where someone has been injured or killed, according to a compilation by CNN That number is already on target to outpace 2018, which saw 24 school shootings that resulted in 35 deaths and another 79 wounded.

In April, students at DeKalb County’s Wynbrooke Elementary Theme School were fired upon with a pellet gun while they played outside. A 14-year-old boy with no ties to the school or the community was convicted of multiple counts of aggravated assault. All the children survived, but a shaken community was grateful the weapon hadn’t been more lethal.

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Since classes started back in August, several school systems have had threats of gun violence. DeKalb County has had at least three incidents where someone had a gun on or near school property. In Cobb County, a Wheeler High School student took a loaded Glock handgun to school, causing a “code red” and temporary lockdown on campus.

On Aug. 15, a 12-year-old boy was shot and injured at Peek’s Chapel Elementary School in Rockdale County. Authorities arrested and charged a 15-year-old boy with aggravated assault and aggravated battery in connection with the incident.

“Every student deserves access to a safe learning environment and a quality education,” said Perdue. “As a father and a grandfather, keeping children safe is my top priority. … My mom and dad were schoolteachers, and they talked about school safety all the time. As an engineer by trade, I believe the first step to improving school security is addressing the structural safety of schools.”

The School Safety Clearinghouse Act is based on findings from the December report from the Federal Commission on School Safety. The funding would come from the Infrastructure Security Program, which is under the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security. The funding for this program has already been appropriated by Congress in FY2019. The legislation would include:

• Recommendations from numerous stakeholders in school safety, including engineers, architects, first responders, building security experts, and mental health advocates.

• Avoiding advocating or advertising for specific technologies or tools, and would have authority to validate recommendations.

• Ensure all schools have access to the best design strategies possible to create safe learning environments for our children.

“Our bill would simply create a resource where state and local officials can find best practices for school security and design,” added Perdue. “Ultimately, it will allow parents, teachers, and administrators to make informed decisions about the best ways to keep their schools and communities safe.”

If approved, the School Safety Clearinghouse Act could be a way to further fund plans already set in motion in Georgia’s schools.

On the state level, Gov. Brian Kemp secured $69 million for local grant money to bolster school security at the end of the 2019 legislative session.

Many schools used some of that money to implement new design techniques; secure access points, such as second sets of doors at school entrances to add extra security; improve entry technology with required ID scans and instant background checks to receive a visitor pass; and other security measures.

Many school districts also have access to school security funding as a result of the federal STOP School Violence Act which authorized $75 million in grants to be administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Similar annual appropriations are expected in the future.

Perdue stressed that this bill will not only establish a funding source for the clearinghouse, but that the information available would help local officials determine how best to use state and federal grant funding at a time when they are struggling to find reliable information on the technologies and tools that are available to their schools.

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