National tragedies spark local action, including a Governor’s Task Force on school safety

The recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida has prompted communities across New Hampshire to take up the issue of school safety and reflect on student wellbeing.

At the state level, Governor Chris Sununu has announced a School Safety Preparedness Taskforce, and Senator Martha Hennessy introduced an amendment to an existing Senate bill that would allow school districts to ban firearms on campus.

At the local level, law enforcement and schools across the state have held public safety forums, and students have come together to initiate new conversations around student wellness, mental health, and firearm safety and restrictions.

School Safety Preparedness Task Force

Governor Sununu announced a new task force on Monday that will develop stronger safety protocols for New Hampshire’s schools. The task force’s efforts will be combined with the new Public School Infrastructure Fund, which includes nearly $20 million for school infrastructure and safety improvements:

“We urge schools to be proactive in their communications with parents regarding the safety preparedness steps they are taking,” said Governor Chris Sununu. “At the same time, schools are strongly encouraged to take advantage of state programs being offered including emergency management grants used to enhance communications between schools and first responders and additional resources available to assist with school preparedness exercises. We will not stop until our schools are the safest in the nation. If we can’t put our kids on the school bus and know they are safe, nothing else matters.”

NH Students Respond

Sixteen year old Hannah Landry is organizing a March for Our Lives event in Keene on March 24 to show support to students in Parkland, Florida.

“They’re demanding change, and I felt that as a high school student that I can’t just sit here and not carry their message,” Landry told the Keene Sentinel.

“I can’t imagine what these students (in Florida) and their families are going through emotionally and physically, but I want them to know that we, as a community, support them and the message they’re conveying,” she said.

Other students are also speaking out, too, according to the Keene Sentinel.

While Keene and Monadnock students shared similar sentiments, the Keene students talked about participating in the National School Walkout or similar demonstrations.

“We want our members of Congress to know that this isn’t okay and that I should feel safe going to school, and I shouldn’t have anxiety when I’m in a crowded auditorium,” Lucy Marshall, 17, said.

Shootings like the one in Florida cross her mind sometimes when she walks the hallways at school, she said.

“I think students, as a whole, recognize that student safety isn’t a political movement,” she said. “It should just be a matter of being done. This shouldn’t have to come to politics.”

Emma Whittemore, 17, agreed with Marshall, and said it can be difficult to remain vigilant and cautious without living in fear.

“Teachers have kind of set class time aside to talk to students about what would happen in situations like that,” Whittemore said. “We haven’t practiced a lot of drills yet, but we did last year, and hopefully we’ll start doing that more.”

Amendment to Allow Firearms Ban in Schools

Last Thursday, Senator Martha Hennessy (Hanover) submitted a floor amendment to SB 357 that would allow school boards to adopt policies that restrict firearms in schools. The original bill would have prohibited safe syringe programs in schools. The bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee for further study, though a hearing date has not yet been set.

Current state law allows firearms on school grounds. House Bill 1749, proposed earlier this year, would have imposed fines on school board members, selectmen, or other government officials who proposed or voted in support of firearms restrictions on school grounds. State law gives the state Legislature the sole authority to regulate firearms, even though there is a federal law in place that bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school.

School Safety Forums

Threats in at least six schools last week have prompted school safety forums in Keene, Portsmouth, and Epping. Local law enforcement and school officials answered questions from parents, students, and community members.

In Epping, residents asked for more school resource officers and more guidance counselors, according to NHPR. But residents were also concerned about funding the positions:

“I’m concerned that a school resource officer won’t get funded. That the changes that they want to make in school training won’t get funded. And that ultimately will be the big test of how badly the parents really want to make these things happen,” said resident Robin Brisco.

Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner told NHPR that community partnerships are important in helping to prevent tragedies like the one in Parkland, Florida:

“Many times when the police start to look at an issue, they look at it from one direction, and the successes that we’ve had throughout our policing profession has come from the community, when the community tells you what they actually want, what they feel they need,” said Chief Merner. “And somewhere in between is usually the best response, and I just feel that it’s best to hear from the students as to what they see, what they hear, what they feel. And part of that is building the trust with the students, and whether it’s the police, politicians, city council, school committee or school administrators.’

Keene’s forum is scheduled for March 7. Portsmouth High School is also organizing a school-wide forum for students to speak with police and school officials after the school vacation.