JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Show-Me State has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, but the state’s top education leader said they’ve been paying attention to school shootings over the past two decades and the lessons learned.
Are students and teachers safe in Missouri classrooms? It’s a question our Missouri Chief Capitol Bureau Reporter Emily Manley asked the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) following a string of mass shootings around the country.
Vandeven said Missouri is a local control state, meaning districts get to make their own decisions when it comes to a safety plan.
“Each and every school district has a plan, ” Vandeven said. “We don’t approve those plans here at the department level, but they are required to have a plan that is in place.”
She said during the interview there isn’t a school leader in the state that she speaks with that doesn’t make safety a top priority. Vandeven said the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado more than 20 years ago when schools started looking at their safety plans.
“Making sure doors are appropriately locked, people can’t easily access school buildings any longer, making sure we have our resources in place so that there are quick response times and communication with local law officials,” Vandeven said.
It’s become a nationwide discussion, are students and teachers safe at school? Since 2014, the state has had a program in place within the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to train school staff and administrators to carry guns at schools.
It’s called the School Protection Officer Training program. Mike O’Connell with DPS said there are 23 school districts across the state who has at least one person who has completed the training. In total, 52 people have gone through the program and are considered “protection officers,” according to a state statute.
“We’re seeing much more increased presence of school resource officers and again, highly trained officials who are in those schools monitoring situations,” Vandeven said.
Because of the local control aspect, schools can also put their own policies in place. There’s also an app, Courage2Report.
“We’ve been able to advert many situations that you don’t hear about because of a parent or because of a sibling or because of a friend of a friend who heard something that did not seem right and they reported it,” Vandeven said.
The app is free and allows a family member or student to anonymously report a threat or bullying. The Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP), which helps oversees the app, says there were nearly 750 reports submitted to law enforcement around the state this past school year. All Missouri schools are registered on the app.
“What we’re seeing in some of these most recent stories, we’re having younger and younger perpetrators. So what is the root cause, and how do we address that together as a society?” Vandeven said. “A community response is very necessary, so that’s where I would like for us to really work together as a state, taking politics out.”
Vandeven said districts are also using federal COVID relief money to increase mental health resources at schools.
“It’s one thing to talk about needing mental health needs to be addressed,” Vandeven said. “It’s another to come together and put some strategies in place to make sure that’s happening. It’s often challenging to find mental health providers in their community.”
She’s asking parents to talk to their kids, but also asking lawmakers for help to prevent tragedies in Missouri.
“I think our legislators certainly have a role to play in this and can be helpful, but the issue is you really can’t legislate culture and climate,” Vandeven said. “To parents, help us in education by being vigilant, responding and reporting things that might not seem right.”
Courage2Report operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don’t want to download the app, you can submit a report by phone (866-748-7047) or on the website.
The program works like this. First, the parent or student reports the problem on the app, hotline, or online. The administration, school resource officer, local law enforcement, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol are notified of the report. Then, they can take action to stop the threat and offer services to the student.