ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Some of New Mexico’s most influential lawmakers on Thursday proposed creating a task force to explore the challenges of school violence and classroom security after hearing from top law enforcement officers and administrators from a district where two students were shot and killed in December.
Officials gathered at the State Capitol for a hearing before the Legislative Finance Committee on school safety strategies.
Some said it’s the top issue for constituents in their districts and that simple efforts like having working locks on classroom doors will help.
Lawmakers during the recent legislative session approved $46 million for public school security projects over the next four years, but officials have acknowledged it will take more than building upgrades and surveillance cameras to restore a sense of security.
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A briefing prepared by legislative analysts said there is no single strategy that can prevent another school shooting. Experts who study mass shootings indicate school violence-related fatalities are not happening more frequently, but are more deadly than past attacks.
The briefing also warns that mental health cannot be used as a single indicator of risk. The report cites other factors such as poverty, exposure to violence, child maltreatment and substance abuse as better predictors of a person’s potential for violence.
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith pointed to a deadly 1999 school shooting in his border community of Deming in which a 13-year-old boy shot a female classmate. The family reported that the boy had several difficult years dealing with depression, a violent temper and the death of his mother.
“We have some obstacles out there that are far beyond my appropriation ability. We can appropriate all the money in the world; it doesn’t mean we’re going to get that service to where it needs to be,” Smith said. “The challenges are unreal.”
New Mexico Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that some things can be done immediately, like working better with law enforcement but that the long-term strategy needs to focus on prevention.
“Now is also the time for schools to be engaging parents and families in new ways,” he said. “We need as many eyes and ears and as many people being vigilant and compassionate for our kids as possible. Schools are going to have to embrace new forms of parent and family communications.”
The legislative panel after hours of discussion moved to create a task force to study the issue and make recommendations on possible legislation.
The New Mexico Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until January, but Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, said lawmakers should hold a special session and act before the start of the next school year. His colleagues disagreed, saying more thought needs to go into how New Mexico moves ahead.
New Mexico schools use various security measures, from cameras and locking exterior doors to school resource officers, but the legislative analysis found that school officials don’t generally work with law enforcement or emergency responders on their security plans.
The briefing recommends more coordination with local police and sheriff’s departments when it comes to training, assessing risk, reviewing school floor plans and intelligence gathering.
After touring various schools, the Public School Facilities Authority said it is preparing a new design guidelines and that law enforcement will be part of the review process.
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas testified that public schools can be “tactical nightmares” and having the ability to tap into a school’s camera system would help when responding to emergencies.
Another recommendation in the briefing calls for the state Public Education Department to consider collecting data on school bullying, discipline and other measures of student well-being.
The briefing also suggests that state education, public safety and human health departments work with federal agencies to develop an early warning system to identify students who pose a potential threat to themselves and others and to implement support and intervention programs.