Education Secretary to students: ‘You have to demand that things change.’

During a town hall-style meeting in Hartford Friday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said schools need to find ways to become safer without being turned into prisons.

He and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy also announced school security grants. Duncan announced a $1.3 million grant to help the Newtown community heal from its trauma. Malloy said he will hand out $5 million in competitive grants to reimburse cities and towns for school safety improvements.

Duncan held the meeting at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School to hear students’ concerns about school security in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting in December.

“There are two basic goals that I think we can all agree on: We want a lot few young people being shot and a lot fewer young people growing up in fear,” Duncan said.

About 350 students packed the school’s black box theater for the chance to see Duncan. Several lined up before a microphone and to ask him questions they’d written out on index cards. They wanted to know what he thought about everything from armed guards and guns made from 3-D printers to excessive standardized testing.

Shamar Mahon, a 9th grader, said he supported armed guards at schools to ensure safety and wanted to know what Malloy and Duncan thought.

Malloy pointed out that he will award the $5 million for school security and will follow up with at least two more rounds of competitive grants to help officials make their schools safer.

Duncan said President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $385 million in school safety funds in the budget. It will be up to local school districts to decide how to spend it, he said.

“More armed guards quite honestly is not always the answer,” Duncan said.

Another student said it seems as though not much has changed since the Virginia Tech or Columbine shootings. He wanted to know why students should expect anything different this time.

“You can’t simply expect that things will change,” Duncan said. “You have to demand that things change. As a country we have been far too passive in this area. We’ve had a staggering loss of life. For a long, long time that’s been acceptable.”

“If you just expect things will change due to Sandy Hook, I can promise you it won’t. If you and other young people around country demand that your schools change, I can promise that it will happen,” he said.

Malloy said that as he has traveled about the country the first thing that people want to talk to him about is the Newtown shooting. On Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“It seems to have concentrated people, grabbed their attention and has not let go of their attention,” Malloy said.

Duncan said his department plans to put out a grade-by-grade series of best practices this summer to help schools address security issues.

Duncan praised the actions and courage of Connecticut leaders for coming together and passing gun control measures and more extensive background checks in response to the shootings. He contrasted the state’s action with the gridlock in Congress on gun control.

Duncan also called sequestration — across-the-board cuts in federal spending that went into effect March 1 — an “unmitigated disaster,” attributing it to bickering in Congress.

“It’s the height of adult dysfunction, and I apologize that Washington allowed this to happen. It is cutting education in Head Start, will lead to cuts in K-12, and work-study opportunities will be reduced. As a country, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Student Justin Vega said he feels as if all the time and money spent on standardized testing has compromised the quality of his education. He asked whether the money might be better spent on security.

Both Malloy and Duncan agreed that it makes sense to find the right balance in testing. Malloy noted that Hartford schools could potentially have a 40 percent dropout rate. “We have to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need a multifaceted approach which doesn’t overemphasize [testing],” Malloy said.

Duncan agreed about balance and noted that when he was the head of Chicago schools, he cut the amount of standardized testing by 50 percent.

Duncan concluded the forum by urging to students not only to attend college, but to graduate from college.

“Some form of higher education — a four-year university, a two-year community college, a trade, technical, vocational training — that has to be the goal for every one of you,” Duncan said.

“It might take two years, it might take you three, four, five, six — it took me five years to graduate from college. If you do that degree at the back end, you are going to have a wealth of opportunities ahead of you. If you don’t do that, you are going to see a lot of doors close on you.”