The hot-button topic in American education lately is safety, and Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Ken Wagner was measured in his response to how RIDE is reacting to a wave of activism – primarily from the students in schools themselves – which is now demanding for more legislation to curb gun violence and ensure students feel safer while in class.
A large part of these efforts, Wagner said during his recent visit to the Beacon office on Good Friday, is tied to funding.
That means more funding is needed for the facilities themselves, which can be achieved through the proposed "once-in-a-generation" $250 million bond to provide money to fix decrepit schools throughout the state and help further beef up security measures, such as locked access points and security cameras.
While Wagner said that the evidence regarding having armed officers in schools has been mixed – as shootings, such as the most recent in Florida, have occurred despite armed resource officers being present – he said the state shouldn't impede efforts by districts who want to have armed officers in the schools.
"Right now people are scared," he said. "And if it helps people feel less scared by having school resource officers present in all our schools then I don't think that's the kind of thing we want to stand in the way of people doing. It might make a real difference, and it certainly might make a difference in how people feel in their schools."
Wagner said that reactive procures – such as ensuring that the school district and the local police and fire departments are on the same page about emergency protocols – are important, but equally important are measures to prevent tragedies from happening in the first place.
"Investing in climate and culture work and social emotional work [is equally important]," he said. "Make it so that a kid who is suffering or angry, or whatever the context is, it's much more likely that kid is noticed and engaged and prevented…We have to continue to raise awareness that those breakdowns can't happen, because the stakes are too high."
While Wagner did not want to speak for anybody but himself on his comfort levels with guns being physically present in safes within the schools themselves, he did provide a line in the sand regarding arming teachers, as some have proposed.
"The job of a teacher is complex enough. I can't imagine us collectively saying we want teachers to get better at literacy and fractions and we want them to be marksmen," Wagner said. "I don't hear our teachers asking for the ability to be armed and I think we need to focus on other things for teachers to really refine their craft."
Wagner said he was happy with the state's reaction to many secondary schools allowing their students to engage in demonstrations during the nationwide "walkouts" that occurred on March 14 in a safe way that still encouraged them to exercise their opinions on a subject matter of supreme importance and relevance to them.
"What we tried to do in our role is, when it became clear that there was a moment for student advocacy around things that were obviously life and death for students, we wanted to make it clear that we needed to not suppress that," he said. "Kids are scared, and when they're scared we need to listen to them. We can't pretend that it's not there because that just makes people more scared. We need to listen them, we need to hear their ideas and we need to build on their suggestions. For the most part that's what the schools are doing."