5 Youth Development Bills to Merge with Gun Control Legislation

The post-Newtown guns discussion has focused mostly on limitation and security. That is predictable, as the tragedy immediately at hand involved a high-capacity rifle on a school campus.

But advocates for disadvantaged youths – many of whom live where gun violence comes in small, steady waves and involves handguns – want violence prevention in the mix.

The broader concepts of weapons bans and background checks will be a high-priced battle fought on two fronts: with Washington lobbyists, led by and with public grassroots and media campaigns. This will be led by the money and influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Obama-affiliated Organizing for Action (OFA).

In YSI’s humble opinion, for those hoping for gun controls and restrictions, it is going to come down to a) how well gun control advocates can garner the support of hunters and b) trade on the fact that the most popular Republican is still Ronald Reagan, who favored steeper restrictions on assault weapons.

Perhaps we’ll see a Hologram Ronald Reagan shilling for a weapons ban at Coachella this April? Come on, that crowd would go crazy!

At any rate, the cabal supporting things like violence prevention and mental health are less-financed than the likes of the NRA and OFA. The wealthiest “voice” talking violence prevention is New York Michael Bloomberg, who has financially fueled a mayoral campaign for gun control and appears ready to spend a lot more.

But efforts are underway to push services for youth into the mix, and the . One way, perhaps the best way, will be to attach proposed legislation as part of some larger gun control and/or school safety bill.

Following is a look at some legislative that youth services proponents might attempt to connect:

The Youth PROMISE Act
Author: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va)

What it does: Click here for more details on the act, but in a nutshell, it would provide a wave of planning grants followed by larger implementation grants for community-conceived plans to confront pervasive violence.

There is no mystery about Rep. Scott’s intentions; the plan is to attach PROMISE to a larger gun control bill. There was an attempt in 2010, just before leadership in the House changed over to the Republicans, to merge PROMISE with a Senate crime control bill that mostly sought to assist law enforcement. But attempts to hotline that bill were thwarted by an anonymous objecting senator.

There is already a modest home for the PROMISE Act within an existing appropriation: Community-Based Violence Prevention, a pot at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that included $8 million in fiscal 2012.

Safe Schools Improvement Act
Authors: Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.)

What it does: SSIA amends the 21st Century Schools section of the  Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and requires state and local education agencies to work together to collect and report on “incidence, prevalence, age of onset, perception of health risk, and perception of social disapproval of bullying and harassment by youth.”

Notes: SSIA has been introduced in every Congress since the 109th, and had 170 House co-sponsors and 41 Senate supporters at the conclusion of the last legislature.

Unlike the preeminent federal law on bullying, Title IX, SSIA includes mention of electronic communication as bullying, and also specifies conduct “based on sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” The Obama administration, in a 2010 guidance letter sent to schools around the country, said it also interprets Title IX to tacitly include bullying based on sexual orientation.

There isn’t new funding attached to help schools do the work, so it is an unfunded mandate, although the language allows schools to use funds from some other parts of ESEA to get it done.

Student Support Act
Author: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)

What it does: Establishes a $100 million matching program to help schools hire additional counselors, youth workers and mental health professionals. States would have to apply to the Department of Education with a plan for hiring new workers, and would have to match the amount contributed by the feds.

Two caveats that make this a workable thing for states: The match can be in-kind or cash, and the match burden can (for the most part) be passed down to local education agencies.

Notes: Well, there’s no getting around the fact that $100 million is a tough sell at this point. But Obama did express an interest in giving schools the choice to hire more security or support staff based on their needs.

And the need involved here is pretty demonstrable. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends that states should aim to have a school counselor for every 250 students. There are three states who fall below that threshold (New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming). And lest you think the ASCA has pie-in-the-sky standards, there are 12 states with a ratio above 500:1.

Lee’s home state of California, home to more than 9 million people under the age of 18, has a ratio of 1,016:1. Yikes.

Lee’s bill may have a partner in the Senate: Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) submitted a bill called the Counseling for Career Choice Act last week, which according to the ASCA would “provide states funds to create or expand their comprehensive school counseling framework that includes guidance from local school districts, post-secondary schools and programs, and local business and industry.”

Mental Health in Schools Act
Author: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.)

What it does: Similar to Rep. Lee’s Student Support Act, it establishes a grant program ($200 million) that would fund schools to increase mental health services for students.

Unlike Lee’s bill, this act would seed school partnerships with community-based organizations, as opposed to directly hiring more school personnel.

Notes: We’d say the easiest way to handle this and Lee’s bill would be to fold them into one, giving schools the chance to apply for funds to either hire mental health and support staff, or partner with community organizations.  The problem is, Lee’s bill authorizes funds from the Department of Education and Franken’s bill would fund through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of Health and Human Services.

Franken threw in an intriguing final caveat for acceptable uses of the grants in his bill: “Establish mechanisms for children and adolescents to report incidents of violence or plans by other children, adolescents, or adults to commit violence.”

YSI presumes that to mean some sort of hotline (phone or web) that allows students to disclose what they know without drawing attention to themselves? The tricky part there is how to set that up in a way where a) it would not lead to lots of frivolous investigations by law enforcement and b) accused or implicated youths would not be punished simply for being mentioned.

Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act of 2011
Authors: Reps. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.)

What it does: Amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to allow school districts to use the Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting Fund to train staff on social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, which are aimed at curbing bullying behavior by building up students’ capacity for empathy.

Notes: This bill hasn’t actually been introduced, but YSI would not be surprised to see it or some similar legislation emerge. The notion of bullying alone producing vengeance-hungry mass shooters is absurd, but SEL is about more than stopping bullying. The goal for effective SEL is to teach youths how to recognize and manage emotions while also  developing concern for others.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.