ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton proposed $21 million in new funding for security enhancements and mental health improvements in Minnesota schools on Wednesday, as thousands of high school students converged on the Capitol to call for stronger gun laws in the wake of the deadly Florida school shooting.
Dayton, a Democrat, said the money in his proposal could help pay for improvements such as bulletproof glass and secure entrances as well as hire more counselors or school resource officers. Furnished by the state's $329 million budget surplus, the $16 million dedicated school security fund would allow school districts to utilize funding to make whatever enhancements they see fit.
"We have over 2,400 school buildings in Minnesota, and probably each situation is unique," Dayton said. "The tragedies that have happened in Florida and elsewhere are a grim warning to us that we need to do more, we need to be ever more vigilant to protect the safety of our students."
School safety has been thrust into the spotlight since the deadly school shooting in Florida that killed 17 students and staff on Feb. 14. And though similar tragedy hasn't touched Minnesota, anxiety is running high after a slew of recent threats at schools, including a six-hour lockdown at public schools in Orono last month.
"We were prepared and we have best practices in place, but we need more," Orono schools superintendent Karen Orcutt said. "We need to give more support to schools with safety and security needs."
Dayton's proposal also would boost grants to schools for mental health programs. And it would ensure that school districts adequately track expelled students, and share information on those students with other schools across the state. The teenager who shot and killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida had been expelled from Marjorty Stoneman Douglas High School.
Separately, Dayton is calling for stricter laws like expanding background checks, raising the age to buy assault weapons to 21 and creating a legal avenue for police and family members to temporarily revoke guns from a person who may harm themselves or others. Those measures face stiff odds in the GOP Legislature — a House committee has already turned back Democrat-backed two such bills.
But that's the kind of legislation students who rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday said was even more necessary. More than 2,000 local high students left their classrooms to march to the Capitol, and St. Paul Police said 5,000 students total visited the Capitol on Wednesday.
Choking back tears as speakers read off the names of the 17 students and teachers who were killed in Florida, Lily Brielmaier said the proposals to boost school building safety don't address her broader concerns about gun violence.
"As much as we want to feel safe in school, we should have that everywhere," the Cretin-Derham Hall junior said.
While gun laws have divided public officials in St. Paul, school security measures are a rare area of agreement between Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature, where lawmakers have already laid out plans to create new funds — or repurpose existing accounts — for safety improvements. Though they haven't yet put dollar figures on how much to devote, House Education Finance committee chairwoman Rep. Jenifer Loon said they would likely tap into the budget surplus.
"I haven't talked to a person who doesn't want to give schools the resources they need to try to do the best they can to ensure our children's safety. Everyone wants to do that," Loon said.
Associated Press reporter Youssef Rddad contributed to this report.