State Senate takes two steps forward -- and one back -- on school safety

Jeff Neal

Two steps forward. And one back.

That's what the Kentucky State Senate has managed to do within a one-week span in the realm of school safety.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a sweeping school safety bill that is aimed to defuse situations that could lead to tragic school shootings, such as the one that occurred at Marshall County High in Benton, Ky., in January 2018.

But on the heels of that monumental accomplishment-- and on the anniversary of the horrific Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 students and faculty members dead -- the Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit. And without any training.

Before the bad and the ugly, let's look at the good. Let's give credit where credit is due -- the school safety bill is a solid piece of legislation with our children's well-being as the impetus.

The bill calls for the creation of a new position -- the state school security marshal, whose job would be to enforce safety compliance similar to the state fire marshal enforcing fire safety. The state school security marshal would report annually about findings and recommendations to the Kentucky Center for School Safety.

The bill would also require the development of a school security risk assessment tool, and school superintendents would be required to complete the risk assessment each year. If the risk assessment is not completed, additional staff training would be mandatory.

Under the legislation, each school district must appoint a school safety coordinator, who would complete training within six months of the appointment. The school safety coordinator would then designate threat assessment teams at each school in the district. The school safety coordinator must also create policies and procedures "for an all-hazards approach to school safety," and ensure that each campus in the district is toured at least once every school year.

In addition, the bill calls for at least one school resource officer to be assigned at each school within a district as funds and qualified personnel become available. Each year, superintendents would be required to report to the Center for School Safety on the number of SROs in their districts and how they are placed.

But not only does the bill provide security, it also attempts to tackle underlying mental health issues that could trigger events that threaten student safety.

The bill would require each school district to provide a school counselor for every 250 students by July 1, 2021, or when funds and qualified staff become available. It would also require districts to teach suicide prevention awareness to students in person, by live streaming, or via video recording. Staff members who directly interact with students would be required to undergo at least one hour of training each year on how to respond to an active shooter.

The only problem with the bill -- how do we fund it?

"I really commend the members who were on this school commission because they've done an excellent job," said Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort. "But our real failure is to address the funds with which to accomplish the purpose set out by this legislation."

The funding will likely be addressed in the next legislative session. It's a project worth funding, just like the state's pension system is worth fixing.

So let's look for new revenue streams and make it happen.

Now onto the ugly. The NRA-driven legislation that would allow any untrained citizen to walk around with a concealed weapon is not only a threat to our schools, but also a threat to law enforcement officers.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, and National Rifle Association state director Art Thomm said Kentuckians already can carry weapons openly without any training.

Smith noted that if someone has a gun under a coat, a permit now is needed. He said that does not seem fair.

"This bill decriminalizes wearing a coat in the state of Kentucky," said Thomm.

Yes, he really said that.

There is a big difference between open carry and concealed carry.

Carrying a concealed weapon is something that should come with the background checks and training required in obtaining a permit. That does not infringe on the 2nd Amendment and it still provides some security against firearms falling into the wrong hands.

With additional guns in the hands of criminals or those with mental or emotional problems, the threat to school safety -- an area where the Kentucky Senate made such great strides last week -- is increased.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, said she has had a concealed carry license for more than 20 years but couldn't support the bill because it doesn't require gun training and safety classes.

"The basic fundamental instruction I underwent to receive that (license) gave me the confidence I could handle that weapon," she said. "I think taking away that training is certainly going in the wrong direction."

Let's hope the House knocks down the concealed weapon bill and focuses on keeping our students and educators safe.

The school safety bill makes sense. The other? Not so much.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.