The following op-ed is written by Kentucky State Senators Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green), Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), and Danny Carroll (R-Benton).
Following the tragic events in Uvalde, Texas, state and federal lawmakers are considering policy initiatives to better secure public schools. Among ideas being hotly debated is the addition of armed school resource officers (SRO), strengthening security infrastructure on campuses, better addressing youth mental health in schools, and even adopting “red flag” gun laws.
With the 24/7 news cycle and the prevalence of social media in our lives, we are too often prisoners of the moment. Justifiably, when unspeakable horrors occur, there is an immediate call to ‘do something…anything, and now!’ However, we must not rush to legislate simply to make us ‘feel’ better.
We in the Kentucky General Assembly have made a concerted effort to pass effective school safety legislation. We invited all stakeholders to the table and met with local law enforcement, leaders, teachers, and parents to receive input. The Kentucky school safety model is one the entire nation can look to as a blueprint. As a matter of fact, other states consistently reach out to us to ask how we were able to successfully collaborate.
The first school safety bill implemented by the Kentucky General Assembly was Senate Bill 8 in 2013. The bill established a framework for emergency response procedures, including one for school lockdowns. It required school districts to develop a plan, share it with first responders, and conduct bi-annual drills with each school and their respective law enforcement agencies.
In 2018, a troubled young man shot and killed two students and injured 14 others in Marshall County. In contrast with the undeniable security and response failures in Uvalde, the shooter in Marshall County was stopped within a matter of minutes.
In the wake of the Marshall County shooting, we formed a legislative working group intent on developing a more comprehensive school safety model, ultimately culminating with the passage of Senate Bill 1 during the 2019 legislative session.
This bipartisan legislation made mental health services available to students, recommending one licensed mental health professional for every 250 students. It also established parameters for SRO training, requiring 120 hours of specific training and Peace Officer Professional Standards (POPS) certification for each applicant – far more stringent training than any other state. Lastly, the law set guidelines for how schools can communicate privately with law enforcement about potentially troubled students and it designated a school safety marshal who oversees and aids districts in implementing safety plans.
During the 2022 session, the General Assembly allocated $41 million in the state budget for school safety measures, and increased per-student funding by $500 million, freeing up school district budgets to put these funds toward security. In addition, Kentucky school districts have received $2 billion directly in federal COVID relief money; these are open pots of money that can be used to cover the costs of hiring SROs, fortifying schools, and staffing them with mental health practitioners. Also of interest, there is not a single record of the Kentucky Department of Education asking for school safety funding in their legislative budget request. Yet, the consistent narrative reported is that ‘funding isn’t available, and we need more.’
Furthermore, we enacted House Bill 63 this year. The bill allows for schools to form their own police departments, which opens opportunities for state and federal grants. This is an additional funding resource that can be used for hiring and training SROs, which districts can readily apply for.
Recruiting SROs is serious hurdle to jump. Local police departments face staffing shortages as it is and SROs must have police-level training. One potential solution is the recruitment of retired military personnel, taking into account their years of service and then completing any additional training they may need. Protecting our next generation and its teachers is a worthy mission and a natural extension of the service these veterans have already given our country.
As we evaluate possible solutions to prevent these tragedies, we must reflect on the root causes. There is consistently a rush to blame guns first, followed by a frantic push to legislate and restrict them, both federally and at the state level. This argument is ‘low-hanging fruit’ and somewhat disingenuous. Are there some common sense laws we can pass regarding firearms? Possibly. If we are serious about tackling this issue, we should place considerable focus on the complex mental health crisis in our country and work together to find solutions to address it. As a society, we must take a hard look at our deteriorating culture, the breakdown of the nuclear family – along with policies that incentivize it – and acknowledge what we are allowing to influence our children’s minds – social media being one of the greatest concerns.
In closing, crafting new laws just for the sake of doing so places a Band-Aid on this issue and creates a false sense of security. Kentucky is a national model for the legislation we already have in place. We have abundant federal funding available to schools, as well as state money. If we are truly serious about tackling this problem, we will address mental health more aggressively, move forward with the legislation on the books, collect data, and make appropriate changes as needed. These are the best solutions to school safety and protecting our children.