Late last month the U.S. Department of Education (ED) unveiled its new keep-kids-safe-at-school initiative based on President Obama and Vice President Biden’s “Now Is The Time” plan. According to ED:

To help keep students safe and improve their learning environments, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $70 million to 130 grantees in 38 states. …

“If we can’t help protect kids and staff, and make them feel safe at school, then everything else that we do is secondary,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “If kids don’t feel safe, they can’t learn. It’s that simple. Through these grants of more than $70 million, we are continuing our commitment to ensure that kids have access to the best learning experience possible.”

The grants fall into four categories inspired by the Now It’s Time plan:

  • School Climate Transformation grants totaling $35,818,097 to 71 school districts in 23 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The grants provide funding for up to five years, for a total of nearly $180 million. “The funds will be used to develop, enhance, or expand systems of support for implementing evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral frameworks for improving behavioral outcomes and learning conditions for students. The goals of the program are to connect children, youths, and families to appropriate services and supports; improve conditions for learning and behavioral outcomes for school-aged youths; and increase awareness of and the ability to respond to mental-health issues among school-aged youths.”
  • School Climate Transformation grants to 20 states totaling $7,339,654. “The grants provide funding for up to five years, for a total of more than $36 million. Twenty states received funding through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Project AWARE grants, including nine Department of Education grantees.”
  • Project Prevent grants to school districts totaling $14,167,876 “to 22 school districts in 14 states…for school-based counseling services, or referrals to community-based counseling services for assistance in coping with trauma or anxiety; school-based social and emotional supports for students to help address the effects of violence; and conflict resolution and other school-based strategies to prevent future violence. Funds also will be used to create a safer and improved school environment, which may include activities to decrease the incidence of harassment, bullying, violence, gang involvement and substance abuse.”
  • School Emergency Management grants to states totaling $13,082,991 “to 25 states to expand their capacity to assist school districts in developing and implementing high-quality school emergency operations plans (EOPs). … These one-time grants provide funding for 18 months.”

The Now It’s Time report focuses on stricter background checks for gun purchases, banning military-style assault weapons, and adding more counselors and resource officers, as well as mental health officials to intervene with troubled youth sooner.

We can all agree that all children should be safe at school, but the president and education secretary’s focus on mass shootings—for all the tragedy and suffering—leaves unaddressed the more pervasive, commonplace factors that make children feel unsafe at school.

Around 80 percent of public schools report violent criminal incidents, and almost 20 percent of public schools report serious violent criminal incidents. Federal agencies also note that the amount of crime on school campuses is substantial,and students are more fearful at school today than in the past.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), however, schools were not required to report actual safety incidents; only  the number of student suspensions and expulsions for a variety of safety violations. In fact state definitions of “unsafe” schools according to federal guidelines was so nearly impossible to reach, less than 50 public schools out of nearly 100,000 nationwide were labeled unsafe annually.

This meant most students attending schools that most reasonable people would consider unsafe were stuck and unable to exercise their NCLB safe school options.

It seems the feds have backed off even further. Parents with children at a schools they think are unsafe should be able to act now—not years from now—to transfer their children to schools they believe are safer. Rather than relying on the federal government, states should enact Safety Opportunity Scholarships (SOS) that would empower parents with a reasonable apprehension for their children’s safety at school to transfer them to the safer school of their choice.

Accurate, transparent, and actionable safety information is what parents and students need most.