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Commission on School Safety goes easy on video games, supports arming school staff

Government acknowledges ESRB’s rating efforts are effective

White House Administration Officials Hosts Federal Commission On School Safety
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen participate in a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety in August.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The Federal Commission on School Safety delivered its findings today in the form of a 180-page report, concluding months of research with a series of recommendations. While the movie and video games industry were both featured prominently during the creation of the panel and experts’ major topic of testimony, the panel ultimately had little to say about entertainment’s impact on school violence. Instead, the report narrows in on the easy availability of firearms as a contributing factor in mass shootings.

Titled Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, the document is the work of a blue-ribbon panel formed in March 2018. Current members include education secretary Betsy DeVos, acting U.S. attorney general Matthew Whitaker, secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Jeff Sessions was also a member for a time, prior to his resignation in November.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) comes out smelling like a rose, despite its connection to the targeted games industry. The Commission notes that the ESRB ratings system is well-known among consumers and succeeds in its goal of keeping mature games out of the hands of children. From the report:

According to a 2016 survey, 86 percent of parents with children who play video games know about the ESRB’s rating system, and 73 percent say they check a computer or video game’s rating before buying it for their children. The ESRB rating system has gained high levels of trust among parents, who regularly report being satisfied with the level of information as they choose which games to select for children.

Rather than impose restrictions on video games, the Commission instead told schools they needed to do a better job controlling access to the internet as a whole. Among its recommendations are to “ensure adequate internet safety measures” and “partner with parents [in order to] strengthen internet safety measures at schools.”

“While some self-regulators provide easy-to-understand rating systems and effectively restrict content through retailer requirements,” the report continues, “all of them should review and improve policies to ensure access to content is limited to age-appropriate consumers.”

Reached for comment, an ESRB representative said the organization is pleased with the Commission’s findings.

“Our 2018 research shows that 83% of parents are aware of ESRB ratings, and 73% regularly check the ratings prior to making a purchase,” they said. “That said, ESRB is always looking at potential enhancements to the rating system as the industry evolves and parental demands change.

“While the ESRB rating system is a great way to get information about what’s in a game, we also recommend that parents set parental controls for all of their family’s consoles, handheld video game devices, computers, and smart devices. Of course, we also encourage parents to take the time to talk with their children about what kinds of games are appropriate for their family, and why.”

The Commission’s report also offers guidance on the placement of guns in schools as a deterrent to active shooters. The discussion of firearms follows early questions that surfaced about the Commission’s methods and processes. In a bizarre exchange in June, for instance, secretary DeVos said that the group would investigate both video games and social media, but not firearms “per se.” That was despite the fact that a directive to look at firearms was written into the Commission’s own web page.

Later, the Commission heard testimony from two different psychologists, both of whom urged them to take time to actually consider the role that firearms play in school shootings. The request seems to have stuck, as a significant portion of the report deals with current and proposed gun laws.

The Commission says that it looked carefully at research on minimum age of gun purchase laws. Those laws are ineffective, it reasoned, because most mass shooters just found guns laying around in their homes.

The U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service reviewed 37 incidents of targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000 and found that most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack. More than two-thirds of the attackers acquired the gun (or guns) used in their attacks from their own home or that of a relative. The School Associated Death Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found similar results in a study of 323 school-associated violent death events that occurred between 1992 and 1999. Of the firearms used to commit homicides, 23.4 percent were obtained from the home of the perpetrator and 27.6 percent came from a friend or a relative.

The only way forward, said the Commission, is to conduct more research.

In the meantime, the Commission said that it supports state and local efforts to get guns directly into schools.

“States and local communities,” the Commission said, “in concert with law enforcement, should consider various approaches to school safety based on their own unique needs. School districts may consider arming some specially selected and trained school personnel (including but not limited to [school resource officers] and [school safety officers]) as a deterrent.”

During today’s teleconference, a senior Trump administration official was clear that the Commission was not recommending that federal funds be used to arm school staff.

“On the question of arming highly trained school personnel,” the official said, “the report in no place makes the recommendation that we’re going to arm teachers. The inputs that Secretary DeVos and the other Commission members received included existing programs throughout the country, including in places like Arkansas, where highly trained, skilled school personnel in some instances have access to firearms. And some of those school personnel, they can range from extracurricular mentors, custodial staff, administrators, or, in some instances, teachers. But it is in no way the recommendation of the report that federal funds be used to arm school personnel.”

The report follows the events of Feb. 14, when a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, resulted in the death of 14 students and three staff. On Feb. 22, President Trump blamed video games and movies for school violence. Then, on Mar. 1, he invited members of the video game industry to the White House. The Federal Commission on School Safety later assembled on Mar. 12.

“After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, this administration took swift action,” said DeVos today. “No parent should fear for their child’s life when they go to school, and no student or teacher should ever have to worry about their safety at school.”

The Commission’s report is just that — a report — and is non-binding. Nevertheless, it will serve as a baseline for discussions about school safety around the country, now and in the future.

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