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Public Statements

Gun Safety

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. BLUMENTHAL. Mr. President, first, I commend and thank my colleague from Michigan, Senator Stabenow, for her leadership on an issue that is among the paramount questions for our time: whether we will meet our obligation to regard mental illness on a par with physical illness, a cause that has occupied me for a long time. So I want to thank the Senator from Michigan for spearheading this initiative, which is a vital part of the effort to stop gun violence in our country and, in fact, make our country healthy in so many ways. I am proud to join her as a cosponsor and a supporter of these efforts.

I come to the floor today to continue the debate on the gun violence initiatives which are central to making America safer and making our country stronger. This bill is a comprehensive set of provisions that will hopefully be further strengthened by an amendment to be offered this week. We are on the cusp of voting on that amendment, the work done by Senators Toomey and Manchin, our colleagues, to reach a reasonable compromise. It is indeed a sensible, commonsense compromise that I am proud to support that will guarantee a criminal background check system to keep firearms and weapons of war out of the hands of people who are dangerous, people who should not have guns, criminals, mentally ill, seriously mentally problem-stricken, and of course others, such as domestic abusers.

For too long, criminal individuals and organizations have prospered from illegally distributing weapons and firearms. So the bill in its second title takes a great step toward barring illegal trafficking and to also ban straw purchases.

Too often given short shrift or little attention is the third title which speaks to school safety, and that is the measure that brings me here today.

School safety is not an afterthought. It is central to stopping gun violence. The tragic lessons we have learned from Sandy Hook include not only the courage of the educators, those brave teachers and administrators and school psychologists, who literally threw themselves at bullets and cradled the loved ones of families who lost their lives, cradled children in their care as they were met by a hail of gunfire--that teaching moment should not only inspire us but obligate us to do more about school safety.

That is why I have gone to the schools of Connecticut, most recently on a tour that I conducted to ten schools around the State, to learn from our educators what they think those lessons are from Sandy Hook and where they think the priorities should be in terms of school safety. That experience provided me with some pillars of a program that I believe is important and is embodied in the act that is before us: the School and Campus Safety Enhancement Act. I want to thank Senator Boxer for her leadership on it which reauthorizes in effect the Secure Our Schools Program, which has been very productive and unfortunately was not reauthorized when it expired.

These measures and the pillars of this program can be summarized very simply:

First, decisions should be made locally about what best fits the community. Those decisions ought to be made by school districts and their boards, parents, teachers, administrators--all who are involved and have the knowledge and expertise and commitment locally, and Washington should not impose its judgment on those communities with a one-size-fits-all set of policies.

Second, school safety ideally should involve a partnership between educators and law enforcement. In many of the schools I visited, I saw the value of school resource officers. More importantly, educators pointed out to me the value of their partnership with local law enforcement through school resource officers who acted not only as security personnel but also as mentors, counselors, and role models, preventing crime, not just stopping it in progress or apprehending criminals afterwards.

Third, schools must be open, supportive, nurturing environments. They cannot be prisons. They cannot be transformed into permanent lockdown. We must commit ourselves to the freedoms and liberties that are embodied in our schools and the educative atmosphere that is so priceless and essential to real education. We cannot solve this problem by simply having more guns in schools, or arming teachers or administrators. Trained school resource officers or others provided with law enforcement support have to be part of a nurturing and open environment.

The act that is before us today embodied in title III is important to move forward school safety, and to embolden, encourage, enable, and empower local decisionmaking.

Today, I want to provide a very short report to my colleagues on what I have learned in my tour; and I encourage my colleagues to do the same around their States because it is genuinely a learning experience. The teaching moment of this tour changed my perspective on school safety, and certainly reinvigorated my appreciation for what happens in the classrooms and schools of our country with the leadership of our teachers and administrators. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

The issue of safe and secure schools certainly raised its head last week in the town of Greenwich, CT, when reports of a gunman put Greenwich High School in a lockdown. Thankfully, the suspect was apprehended, unarmed, with no casualties. The fact that a lockdown was even necessary underscores that we have made great strides; but our young people will not be safe in schools unless we know all of the best practices and implement them. This threat proved empty, but it offered a learning experience in terms of the training, the locking and unlocking procedures for school doors, the types of issues that can be addressed through better and more regular coordination with local police and others who can provide that kind of guidance.

Over the past 3 weeks, the schools I visited were large and small, in widely varying parts of our State: Manchester High School, Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Middletown's Snow Elementary School, New Britain High School, West Bristol K-8 School, the Gilbert School in Winsted's High School, Northwestern Region 7 High School, Waterbury's West Side Middle School, Ross Woodward Magnet School, and Shelton Intermediate School. In every one of them, I saw different ways of dealing with school safety, and also aspiration for even better procedures and equipment--locks, lighting, alarms, cameras--but also training for teachers, and more school resource officers. I believe one of the most important pillars of this program has to be Federal resources that meet those local needs without imposing a one-size-fits-all policy. These schools are in widely different areas in terms of geography and demographics, the size of the communities they serve, the size of the schools, the qualifications of their staff and their training. That is why this program has to be individualized in terms of how it meets these needs and, again, empower and enable local decisionmaking.

The Secure Our Schools grant program has impacted Connecticut very positively. The program has a direct and tangible impact on schools in Stamford, for example, where the problem of gang violence was addressed, and in other schools around the State such as Hartford, where the grant was used for the purchase of an outdoor intercom station, as well as locks and card readers to control access to school.

The Secure Our Schools Program was a success story, and this act now will not only reauthorize but strengthen the Secure Our Schools Program.

To give some examples: In Manchester, the swipe card entry program not only provides for better security but better attendance tracking. The Illing Middle School in Manchester is considering that system, but the installation costs run about $50,000--a small price to pay for greater security that the card system provides. In general, I found security was not only cost effective, it was minimal in its cost compared to many other programs we are potentially taking to improve school safety.

When I went to see Kelly Middle School in Norwich, I had to buzz in on an intercom and announce myself. That was true of many other schools as well. A Senate pin may allow us access to the floor of the Senate without passing through security, but it doesn't get you into Kelly Middle School, nor should it. They have a simple, practical system. If you are visiting during school hours, you buzz in and announce yourself, and then they decide whether that individual can enter through another set of locked doors. The double locks are a system that some schools are considering implementing. It is a sensible policy that is enabled by an intercom system and a camera--again, minimal in cost compared to many other infrastructure programs we may be considering this year.

In Middletown, I visited Snow Elementary School. Principal James Gaudreau demonstrated how their doors are locked. When a person is buzzed in, video cameras record and archive who is entering. Some schools have archiving systems, others do not. Law enforcement knows that archiving is important. As Chief William McKenna and Mayor Dan Drew told me, these systems are planning that was undertaken even before Sandy Hook. School systems, boards, administrators, and teachers were aware of security before Sandy Hook, but their awareness has been enhanced and they are planning to devote additional resources to this issue. Both Mayor Drew and Chief McKenna extolled the virtues of the three school resource officers, and they are looking for additional resources to create afterschool programs and other measures to enhance that partnership and cooperation between police and students, and teachers, educators, and law enforcement can collaborate.

Visiting New Britain was very important on this tour.

When I went to New Britain High School with Mayor Tim O'Brien and school superintendent Kelt Cooper, I saw there the requirement that any visitor is automatically run through a database check--the sex offender database check. Using the driver's license they were able to run that kind of check virtually instantaneously. They also have, in that single high school, 150 cameras to know what is going on in that school minute to minute and with direct links to the police headquarters so that any kind of emergency is immediately apparent to law enforcement. The school is going to install discrete panic buttons, allowing for rapid alerts to be sent to law enforcement, a belt-and-suspenders approach that many schools are implementing.

At Sandy Hook we know that Adam Lanza ended his massacre and took his own life when law enforcement arrived. So the presence of law enforcement can often have a powerful deterrent effect. The knowledge that apprehension will be swift, that killing will be stopped, is a huge deterrent.

At West Bristol K-8 School, Tim Callahan, who is the school project manager there, pointed out to me how a parent dropoff was configured with visual straight lines. Again, design and architecture is important to security so that out in the parking areas there are virtually no blind spots. They have integrated security features into this building while it was constructed. West Bristol also requires visitors to buzz in through the main office when they go through the main building. With grant funds made available under this legislation, this school could install locks on a second set of doors, slowing down potential intruders. We know in these dangerous emergency situations that time is critical. Slowing down a killer, stopping an invader at a second locked door, can gain time for law enforcement to respond and save lives.

Adam Lanza killed 26 people, 20 beautiful children and 6 great educators, in 5 minutes with 154 bullets. If he had been stopped earlier, if a second set of doors had alerted police, if a buzzer had been available of the most immediate kind available elsewhere, the consequences might have been different. There were alerts to the police. They responded virtually immediately. Their response was heroic and profoundly significant to saving even more lives. But we know that time is of the essence in these situations and that is why double locks, buzzer systems, identification, additional checks--all can be important.

The chief operating officer in New Haven Public Schools, Will Clark, told me about that kind of buzzer system there and in Winsted. School officials, including the regional school district school superintendent, Judith Palmer, and the high school principal, Candy Perez, are working hard to improve its security system. But infrastructure there, as they told me, is a continuing challenge. Winsted Board of Education member, Mimi Valyo, told me, ``We do not even have wifi.''

In 2013 we are in a wireless age, and the next generation of security systems may rely on Wi-Fi or smartphones. We need to make sure schools like Winsted have the resources they need to address the security needs of the 21st century with the technology of the 21st century. School security is too important to be allowed to lag.

I thank all of the educators who educated me, who shared with me their stories of progress, their goals for the future, their hopes that we can improve our schools and make them safer. If we make our schools safe, we make our children safer, and we make America safer. I am hopeful--more optimistic than ever in light of the vote we took last week--that we are making progress and that we will have positive votes in the days ahead, votes that fully fulfill our obligation to stop the plague of gun violence.

Again, I thank my colleagues for their courageous votes last week and urge them to move forward this week in the same way.

I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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