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In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., both the Kentucky House and Senate are moving forward with similar school safety bills.
House Bill 354 unanimously cleared the House Education Committee on Thursday and will go to the floor for consideration.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Henderson (D-Jeffersonville) reflects several measures that school districts normally cover – developing school safety plans, using practice drills to gain familiarity with the plans and designing buildings with safety in mind. The bill also notes better communication with local law enforcement, something Shelby County Public Schools has stepped up since the Newtown tragedy on Dec. 14.
“The bill has language that states that requires outside doors to be locked at all times and classroom doors to be locked when practical,” said Rep. Brad Montell (R-Shelbyville). “And, maybe most importantly, all doors and windows to be numbered to help first responders.”
And beyond that commonsense approach, the house bill also recognizes the need to address mental health issues.
“We’ve seen, that in regards to school violence, mental health is almost always a factor,” said James Neihof, SCPS superintendent. “If other agencies can help facilitate that information and help us identify areas that can help, that would be a great advantage.”
The bill would require the Kentucky Department of Education to design methods to notify schools about students’ past issues. It also would have the Cabinet for Health and Family Services provide procedures to help school personnel recognize students who have mental health issues and where they can get help.
Although he has not worked with the bill, Montell said he believes the education committee tried to work out the privacy issues that could go along with sharing that mental health information and history.
“It’s a little touchy, but I think they’ve tried to work out those issues of privacy,” he said. “It’s important that those mental health issues aren’t released to the public.”
However, Neihof said other states already have systems in place that help share that information.
“Not too long ago we had a student transfer in from another state, and we received a letter, I think from the Attorney General [of that state], with the student’s name and history of events within that legal system,” he said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if we could something like this every time a student transferred into our system, what a huge benefit it would be.’
“And what had triggered the letter was our request for the student’s records. In their system, they were tied together, and a student record request triggered that letter from the Attorney General.”
Kentucky does not have that system in place.
“The only records we normally get are the school records,” he said. “Now, if a school knows anything, they may add it on with their records.”
Montell said it appears that the bill has quite a bit of support, and he believes it has a good chance of passing the House.
“I think it’s something that probably passes, and then we’ll see what changes the Senate wants to make,” he said. “I know there’s a strong sentiment from everyone that we want to make our schools as safe as possible. But what we don’t want is a knee-jerk reaction. I think this is something where we’re going to see some debate and maybe some amendments.”
Senate Bill 8, which passed on Feb. 12 and has been sent to the House, did not contain any mental health information, instead focusing more on building safety.
That bill included school emergency plans and working with law enforcement but also noted a yearly annual safety report be filed with the Department of Education and that a local board be created to review crime-prevention designs when constructing or renovating a school building.
Although SCPS hasn’t created a local board specifically for crime prevention designs with its new buildings, it does get public input on new facilities – and did for both the Northside Early Childhood Center and the new Southside Elementary School, which will open next year.
The district also has been working with local law enforcement and recently completed a lockdown drill at each school that included representatives from the county and city law enforcement and emergency personnel.
“Certainly the things we’re doing, we think those put us in the best possible position,” Neihof said. “What I’m not in favor of is another unfunded piece of legislation that mandates the districts put things in place.”
Henderson, who sponsored the house bill, has stated that he will look for more funding for school safety during next year’s budget session, and 0he specifically noted resource officers in every school.
According to Gov. Steve Beshear’s State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this month, only about 19 percent of the schools in the state have law enforcement personnel on staff. In Shelby County, only Shelby County and Collins high schools have resource officers.
Montell noted that he believes these bills will continue to keep the school safety issue at the forefront.
“This isn’t something that demands immediate funding, but instead is more of a commonsense approach, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.