ST. PAUL - Many students say gun restrictions can help keep them safer in schools, but the Minnesota legislative conversation on safe schools has broadened to other issues, some of which bring tears when people talk about them.
"We are facing a public health crisis," Carol Quinn told the state House Education Finance Committee Wednesday, March 21, with tear-filled eyes.
The Minneapolis Public Schools social worker said more people like her, counselors, psychologists and other professionals can help students facing mental health problems find help before they take guns into schools.
"School social workers prevent the unimaginable from happening," Quinn said.
She was one of a series of testifiers who spelled out their professions' contributions to school safety.
With Republican legislative leaders objecting to gun-control legislation, school safety action in the two remaining months of the 2018 legislative session will center on other issues.
Committee Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said in an interview that she has yet to learn if House leaders will allow her committee to spend money to improve school safety, but is optimistic.
"I think we will make a significant dent in this problem," Loon said after listening to emotional testimony, in many cases from people who work with students with mental illness issues.
"We probably need to put some money behind these ideas," she added, as well as giving schools the ability to raise more money locally and give them more flexibility in how to improve safety.
While many people think urban schools are the most in danger, Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said rural and suburban schools have been home to more shootings.
For Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, that means any money the state provides to school safety needs to be distributed with districts' capabilities in mind. A small, rural district, for instance, may get too little money to do any good if funding is split strictly on a per-student basis, Marquart said and Loon agreed.
Marquart suggested putting a minimum amount that would go to a district, such as $30,000, so even the smallest districts would receive benefits.
Committee members discussed some of the bills that may become the basis for 2018 school safety legislation: state aid to help schools afford audits to see what safety measures they need to take, allowing existing school safety property tax levies to be increased with extra help for smaller schools, mental health grants to schools and a state grant program to give schools money for a variety of safety improvements.
Much of the discussion centered on mental health issues.
Blaire Hartley of Minneapolis told of her 18-year-old daughter, who as a freshman suddenly became depressed, causing her to miss a year of school. Anxiety still steals much of the girl's time, Hartley said.
Her lone school psychologist serves a student body of more than 4,000. Students are lucky if they can get an appointment in a month, Hartley added.
"My daughter is a survivor," Hartley said. "She plans to attend college in the fall ... but she truly almost dropped out of school" because of difficulty navigating the mental health system.
Professionals of all types said there are not enough of them in schools. For instance, a nurse said school districts facing tight budgets are eliminating nurse positions.
Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, urged the committee to take action. "If we can help the students where the problems start, we as a society will see significant benefits."
But, Loon said, "the demand has been much higher than we have been able to accomodate."
Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman talked about his department's efforts to put police, known as school resource officers, in schools. He said the officers act as role models and help students accept officers, as well as conducting law enforcement duties.
While school districts he works with split the cost with Red Wing, Pohlman said school officials say they are facing budget crunches that will force them to cut back their financial support.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said some schools in his area have been successful asking local charities to help fund some school safety programs such as officers in schools.