In the wake of the school shootings last month in Newtown, Conn., Vice President Joe Biden issued a “Call for Ideas” on reducing violence and preventing similar incidents. President Obama designated Mr. Biden to identify concrete policy proposals by the end of January, and the Vice President has begun the process by reaching out to experts and stakeholders across the country.
Responding to the Vice President’s call, Agudath Israel of America has submitted formal comments to the working group tasked with hearing recommendations and developing effective approaches to addressing the problem. For over five decades, Agudath Israel has advocated on behalf of the entire range of Orthodox Jewish educational institutions, with special emphasis in recent years on school security. “When we were contacted by the Vice President’s office, we felt it was imperative to bring our experience and perspective into the discussion,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director.
The comments submitted by the Agudah encompasses two broad areas of concern. The first emphasizes the dropoff over time in federal support for keeping the nation’s schools safe and the consequent need to restore and reinvigorate those federal programs that were created specifically for the purpose of addressing violence in schools. The Agudath Israel analysis demonstrates that, despite inclusion in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of various programs to provide funding and other resources to increase school safety and preparedness, these programs have been buried within the bureaucracy, have been made only discretionary in nature, and have had their budgets steadily slashed. It has reached the point where there is no budget request for the programs that were enacted to address violence in American schools and where, according to Agudath Israel, meaningful federal school safety assistance is virtually non-existent.
“It is difficult to comprehend why various Administrations and Congresses have dramatically eviscerated this funding,” observes Rabbi Cohen, “while at the same time emphasizing the need to enhance the safety of our schoolchildren. But it must stop.”
The other concern raised in Agudath Israel’s comments to the Vice President emphasizes that all children, no matter the school they attend, deserve the right to a safe learning environment. Federal anti-violence programs have always recognized that when protecting children is the goal there must be “equitable participation” among public, private and religious schoolchildren. And any steps recommended by the Vice President to combat violence in schools must maintain that equity, Agudath Israel maintains.
In this regard, the group’s comments further assert that an important dimension of the threat facing certain schools — particularly Jewish schools — is that it is of a somewhat different nature from that faced by the majority of the nation’s schools. “All schools face internal threats from the school or from the local community,” states Rabbi Cohen, “but certain schools face threats from the outside as well — from racists and other extremists bent on death and destruction.” To these schools, the potential for violence is a constant reality and they must always be on high alert. Agudath Israel’s message to the Vice President is that the source of the threat is irrelevant — it makes no difference whether the threat is internal or external, whether it is the random act of the mentally disturbed or the deliberate act of a religious or political fanatic.All children must be protected from all threats.
Rabbi Cohen concludes that these recommendations are in no way intended to exclude other public policy avenues that have been raised and discussed by the Vice President and others as possible approaches to addressing the tragic and vexing problem of school violence.