JACKSON Mississippi's children go to school in places "of potential violence," Gov. Phil Bryant lamented in his State of the State address last month, as he called on lawmakers to craft legislation to combat those fears.
On Jan. 31, legislators in the Mississippi House Education Committee advanced to the full chamber a bill designed to do just that, based on recommendations from Bryant's School Safety Task Force.
The Mississippi School Safety Act, introduced by Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, would require school districts to devise and conduct active-shooter drills within the first two months of each semester. It would also implement numerous other changes designed to safeguard Mississippi's schoolchildren against the scourge of violence that has plagued schools nationwide in recent decades, from Columbine High, to Sandy Hook Elementary, to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
"School Safety is Priority #1," Baker, a Republican candidate for attorney general, wrote on Facebook on Feb. 1. "It was a great honor to serve as a member of Governor Bryant's School Safety Task Force."
Mental Health Provisions for Students and School Employees
If Gov. Bryant eventually signs the bill, which now goes to the House floor for a vote, then all school-district employees would be required to attend civilian response and active-shooter training. Every two years, school employees would also attend training courses in mental health.
House Bill 1283 would also "expand student access to mental health resources" and develop ties between school districts and community-health facilities for referrals, school-personnel training, and behavioral-health screenings for students at risk for harm or showing signs of mental or emotional distress.
Bryant, however, has been roundly criticized for cuts to the State's mental-health budget, with some accusing him of playing politics with the needs of Mississippians.
Lisa Fuller, a mother of two children with mental-health disorders in Madison, told the Children's Mental Health Summit in 2017 that mental-health treatment must be sufficiently funded, especially for those who cannot afford it. She had to send her own children out of state for treatment, but could afford it, she said. But others cannot.
"Quality treatment programs should be available for everyone—it shouldn't be for just people like me who have a really good job and can afford it," Fuller said then.
"I don't make a whole lot of money, but I am willing to sacrifice, and that's what my family and I have done."
The new bill, as it stands now, would mandate the creation of three pilot programs in six school districts "to provide students in grade K-5 with skills to manage stress and anxiety in order for them to be better equipped to handle challenges in a healthy way and build resiliency."
The Mississippi Department of Education would be in charge of implementing the programs, while the Department of Mental Health would select the content of an "evidence based curriculum."
'Every School District Is Vulnerable'
Under the proposed act, the Mississippi Analysis and Information Center, which is housed in the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security, "shall employ three regional analysts dedicated to analyzing and resolving potential threats identified by the agency's statewide social media intelligence platform and the dissemination of school safety information."
MSAIC's website notes that its purpose is "to provide Mississippi with a centralized location for the gathering, analysis, and sharing of information from local, state, tribal and federal resources to prevent criminal activity including acts of terrorism or other threats to public safety."
The state would also have to launch a campaign to raise awareness of Mississippi's "See Something, Say Something Act," which Bryant signed into law in 2016.
That law, which Bryant signed in 2016, provides immunity from prosecution for those who report suspicious activity to law enforcement "in good faith."
That year, the Mississippi branch of the American Civil Liberties Union opposed it, warning that such legislation in other states often "leads to dead ends" and that "extending criminal or civil immunity from the law will likely lead to violations of privacy, racial and religious profiling, and interference with constitutionally-protected activities."
"What is even more troubling is that anyone who is not a law enforcement professional and has no professional training or background can determine what 'suspicious behavior' is," the ACLU wrote. "There must be a balance of power between accuser and accused."
Lori Gregory, a Jackson-area public education advocate, told the Jackson Free Press on Monday that she strongly supports some elements of the bill—especially those related to mental health.
"I'm supportive of all teachers getting more training in children's mental health," she said. "I feel that's been sorely lacking in educational backgrounds. Suicide and harm assessments are pretty easy to learn and to administer. Schools holding (memorandums of understanding) with local mental health centers are a positive step because MOUs just lay out a clear referral process between the two agencies that can give teachers clear instructions on how to aid a family with accessing those resources."
When it comes to social media monitoring, though, Gregory said she's suspicious.
"I'm worried about monitoring students social media accounts because if you aren't culturally and generationally fluent in those kids' social media languages, you may assign value to a post that has no real threat or meaning," she said. "So I think one has to be especially careful there."
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat told WTVA News on Sunday that she supports the bill because "it's better to have outside eyes within the school district giving us support with logistics and safety infrastructure."
"It's a priority our kids are safe, our students are safe, our staff is safe, and getting governmental support is important at this time, given all the issues throughout the country right now," she told the north Mississippi broadcaster. "I think that every school district is vulnerable, and I'm just proud we've made an effort to support our school districts in our effort to keep our students safe."
'See Something, Send Something'
Last year, the Mississippi Department of Education began promoting the "See Something, Send Something" mobile app for citizens to report "suspicious activity."
"Designed by the company My Mobile Witness, the free 'See Something, Send Something' app allows a person with a smartphone to take a photo of something they feel is suspicious, add a small note as to why they are concerned, and have it delivered immediately to the MS Analysis and Information Center (MSAIC)," a Mar. 9, 2018, entry on the Mississippi Department of Education's official news blog reads. "This real time delivery of a tip to MSAIC allows an analyst to quickly investigate whether or not law enforcement should be notified and take action if needed."
Before the 1999 Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colo., Mississippi suffered its own mass school shooting in Pearl in October 1997. After a 16-year-old bludgeoned his mother to death at home, he traveled to Pearl High School, pulled a rifle out from under the trenchcoat he was wearing and began shooting. He killed two students and injured seven others.
After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., last year, Mississippians, including those affected by the Pearl shooting, renewed calls for gun control to curb school violence.
Bryant is a firm opponent of restrictions on guns, and the Mississippi School Safety Act does nothing to limit the sales of availability of firearms in the state. Unlike a bill by the same name last year, though, it does not contain a provision that allows teachers to carry firearms. That bill did not pass.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected].