Schools chief, students make new plea for counselors Kathy Hoffman Justin Harb

Kathy Hoffman, state superintendent of public instruction, and Justin Harb, a Mesa high school student and executive director of the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives, discuss a school safety task force she has created after a number of Republican lawmakers sabotaged a bipartisan effort to improve school safety.

A student-led group that tried to get lawmakers to enact gun control last year is refocusing on something more attainable.

Jordan Harb, a leader of the March for Our Lives movement, said Monday his organization remains convinced that Arizona needs to crack down both on who has access to weapons as well as dealing with the kind of guns that can fire off many rounds and kill and maim lots of students.

“I wouldn’t say that we have softened, but rather changed our focus on something that’s actually able to be done,’’ he said. Harb, a Mesa High School student, said the gun-control measures his group pushed last year — which the Republican-controlled Legislature did not enact are “still on our policy agenda.’’

What that leaves for the moment are specific and he believes immediate needs, like the lack of guidance counselors and social workers on campus as well as dealing with issues of bullying and abuse.

Harb’s comments came as Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, announced she was creating a School Safety Task Force to come up with ideas to keep students safer.

The plan is modeled on legislation crafted by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, which would have directed both Hoffman’s agency and local school boards to come up with plans to deal with students with mental health problems who may be capable of killing or injuring their classmates.

McGee’s bill got out of the Senate but was never heard in the House; the Hernandez version cleared two House committees only to be quashed when Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, refused to hear it in the House Rules Committee which he chairs.

Hoffman figures she has the power to bring together diverse interests, with or without legislative authorization, to at least determine what are the problems and the needs and ways that school boards can adopt policies to prevent violence.

Brophy McGee said some of that can be addressed with school design, things like limiting the number of entrances where strangers can get onto campus or into a building.

“But today, more than ever, beyond brick-and-mortar decisions, there are other factors, things that can’t be seen at first glance but can be felt when one walks onto a school campus,’’ she said.

“It’s the school culture which must be built with as much care as the school itself,’’ Brophy McGee continued. “How do we build a positive school culture that strongly deals with such issues as bullying and cyberbullying?’’

Brophy McGee said she supports the decision of the students to refocus their efforts on something other than weapons and access to them.

“At the end of the day, the problem is mental health, whether the weapon chosen is a gun, a knife or something else,’’ she said.

Harb agreed that looking at issues of building design and even putting more police on campus ignores ways of preventing violence in the first place.

“Often the threat is not outside the school gates but in the classroom, sitting next to me,’’ he said. And then there’s the issue of teens who take their own lives.

“Armed guards can sometimes be useful when the first shots are fired,’’ Harb said. “But we often forget that counselors and support systems and other preventative measures to keep violence from happening in the first place.’’

That question of the lack of counselors got increased attention earlier this month with a report by the American School Counselor Association that, on average, there is one counselor for every 905 students in Arizona public schools. That’s nearly twice the national average.

Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed funding for an additional 224 counselors to be hired during the next two years. That, however, would bring it down to just one counselor for every 766 students.

Still, Brophy McGee said her colleagues cannot ignore the fact that the incidents on campuses across the nation involve guns.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people, whether they’re students or whether there were adults,’’ she said.

Last year, Ducey proposed allowing judges to issue orders to take weapons from people who are considered dangerous.

Even with that change the measure could not get a hearing in the House.

Ducey made a new plea for his plan this year but could not even get it introduced into legislation.

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