JEFFERSON CITY - Months after school shootings in Colorado and Georgia thrust school violence onto the national stage, the Missouri House of Representatives took its first steps Tuesday to address the issue.
"Maintaining the safety of Missouri's children is one of the most serious issues we face today," House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, said in a press release, announcing the formation of the House Interim Committee on School Violence and Safe Children. The committee will not only look at the issue of school violence, but will examine the general issue of child safety as well.
Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, who has sponsored juvenile justice legislation in the past, will serve as chairman of the 11-member committee. He said he hopes the committee will be proactive, by identifying problems that could possibly be prevented in the future.
During the next few months, the committee will hold hearings and gather input from individuals and groups who have an interest in child safety issues. In addition to possible future legislation, representatives will consider how well present statutes are working to curtail youth violence.
The committee will compile its findings and recommendations into a final report that must be submitted to Gaw by Dec. 15.
Although it is the first time this year that either legislative chamber has announced plans to examine youth violence, officials in the state's executive branch are nearly finished with their own independent study of the problem.
Gov. Mel Carnahan appointed a special Task Force on School Violence in April, only a few days after the Littleton shootings. The task force, which included various local and state officials, limited its focus to violence occuring on school premises.
Marilou Joyner, assistant commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, served on the task force. She said if educators concentrate on relationships with children and help them feel more connected, many problems could be prevented.
"There are obviously problems out there," Joyner said. "Schools always have been and still are the safest places to be, but that doesn't prohibit us from looking at ways to make schools safer and help children feel safer."
The task force concluded its studies late last summer and submitted a final report to the governor on Sept. 1. However, Carnahan has yet to take action on it. The governor's spokesman was unavailable Tuesday to discuss the contents of the report.
Smith said the House committee will go beyond the issue of school violence by examining the root cause of violence among children.
In the press release, Gaw elaborated on this point, saying, "the recent incidents of violence in our schools have been much publicized, but we should not limit our focus only to violence in schools. We should look at the safety of our children in every environment."
The House was unable to take any action earlier this year because the Littleton shootings occurred near the end of the last session, Smith said, adding that there was no time to draft any legitimate legislation at that time.