A Look at the History of State School Safety Legislation in the Last 2 Decades

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    This is the second in a series of blog posts that explore state efforts to improve school safety through legislation, initiatives, task forces and more. This series aims to inform state efforts to make schools and higher education institutions safe places to learn and work. If there is more information we can provide or technical assistance we can offer, please contact us.

    Student safety and well-being has long been a top priority for state policymakers. At Education Commission of the States, we have been tracking and analyzing school safety legislation for more than two decades, and in that time we’ve seen an ebb and flow of policies related to maintaining safe learning environments.

    Gun-Free Schools Act and the Rise of Zero Tolerance

    In the early 1990s, violence and crime were at an all-time high, and there was a sense of urgency among policymakers at both the federal and state levels to ensure safe schools for students. In 1994, Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated that states receiving federal education funds enact zero tolerance policies requiring at least a one-year expulsion for students carrying weapons in schools. Prior to this, most discipline decisions were made at the district or school level.

    All states moved to pass legislation to comply with the federal law, and some went beyond the federal requirements — requiring automatic suspension or expulsion not just for weapons violations, but also for infractions like possession or use of drugs. In addition, states enacted other policies addressing student behavior, including making parents financially liable for their children’s behavior, suspending or revoking driving privileges for young people who violated weapon- and violence-related laws, and establishing requirements around information-sharing between school districts and law enforcement agencies.

    A New Focus on Emergency Preparedness

    After the tragic events at Columbine High School in 1999, state policymakers continued passing laws related to student behavior — including legislation expanding zero tolerance policies — often by increasing the authority of schools and districts to suspend students. They also began enacting legislation focused on emergency preparedness. New statewide requirements for comprehensive school safety plans often required coordination with local law enforcement, and mandates for new types of emergency drills — such as lockdown drills and active shooter drills — began to pop up.

    New Research and the Move Away From Zero Tolerance

    In recent years the focus on zero tolerance has subsided. Research on long-term negative impacts of exclusionary discipline, including expulsion — as well as disparities in suspension and expulsion among certain student populations — prompted many state policymakers to look at new approaches to student discipline. These approaches included limitations on the length of suspensions or expulsions, prohibitions on the use of exclusionary discipline in the early grades, and consideration of student circumstances and the context of a discipline issue before using exclusionary discipline.

    New Conversations on Guns in Schools

    With the shift away from zero tolerance policies, states focused even more on emergency preparedness. In addition to new or strengthened requirements around school safety plans, emergency drills and coordination with law enforcement, discussions about weapons in schools began to bubble to the surface.

    These early conversations resulted in enacted legislation in nine states in 2013 authorizing, in some way, weapons in schools. Though most of these bills applied only to school security personnel, the conversation has continued to evolve with renewed focus after more recent school tragedies, including those at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Santa Fe High School in Texas and STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. Our 50-State Comparison: K-12 School Safety shows that some states now allow school employees who meet certain criteria and/or concealed carry permit holders to possess weapons in schools, and some states give districts the authority to decide whether they will allow weapons in schools.

    With each new incident of school violence, these painful deliberations continue. From governors’ State of the State addresses and state board actions to newly introduced and enacted legislation, student safety persists as an urgent priority for policymakers across the country.

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    Director of Policy at Education Commission of the States | jthomsen@ecs.org

    In her role as a director of policy, Jennifer oversees a team of policy staff members who work on issues across the educational spectrum. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Jennifer worked for 13 years at the Colorado General Assembly — first as an editor and then as a committee and research staffer. Jennifer is dedicated to providing state leaders with the information they need to make a real difference in students' lives.

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