BENTON, Ky. (WDRB) – If someone could write a book detailing how to prevent deadly shootings like one his high school experienced about a month ago, Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett estimates that person would be a best-selling author.

In the wake of recent shootings at Marshall County High School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 19 in all, Lovett and many others are contemplating how to prevent future school attacks.

“I don’t know what you could legislate,” Lovett told WDRB News during an interview in his office last week.

Opinions on how to make schools safer vary, even among those who witnessed the carnage in Benton last month.

Some believe beefing up police presence in schools or arming trained teachers and school employees would deter would-be shooters, while others say stricter gun laws would keep firearms away from those who shouldn’t have them. Still more say additional resources should be dedicated to mental health programs in schools to help those who may one day turn violent.

And legislators from both parties have proposed much of this. Bills have been filed that would allow teachers to use non-lethal weapons in life-threatening situations, designate a school staff member to serve as an armed marshal and ban the sale of certain semiautomatic firearms to those younger than 21, for instance.

Marshall County High School students now must pass through a handheld metal detector and have their backpacks checked before entering the school since 15-year-old Gabriel Parker, who faces a pair of murder charges and 14 assault charges, allegedly killed two of his schoolmates – 15-year-olds Bailey Holt and Preston Cope –  last month.

But where the district – and, by extension, the state – goes from there remains to be seen.

Gov. Matt Bevin has blamed the shootings on violent video games, movies and television shows and a general decline in social morality. The House and Senate education committees in Kentucky’s General Assembly are planning to discuss school safety at a meeting Thursday as they contemplate possible legislative responses in hopes of preventing future schoolhouse tragedies.

National school safety consultant William Modzeleski, who worked at the Department of Justice and Department of Education, is scheduled to testify at the meeting on how other states have responded to school shootings.

“We’re hoping to have an open dialogue on the topic,” said Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “There will be no legislation that day other than having a speaker who has over 40 years on this particular topic.”

Views from a community still reeling

Jesus Lara, a senior at Marshall County High School, is still coping with the violence that claimed the lives of two of his schoolmates and injured several others.

His hands shake whenever he walks into “the commons” at Marshall County High School, a typical gathering place for students and the site where Parker opened fire with a handgun as school started Jan. 23.

Whenever he sits down, he has to have the nearest door in his sight. The incident left him more aware of his surroundings.

He’s opened up to counselors about the emotions that have roiled inside him ever since Parker, a fellow member of the school band, allegedly killed two of his schoolmates and injured several others. Lara says he feels sick whenever he looks at the seat where the accused murder sat in the band room.

“Nobody expected that out of him because he was super sweet,” Lara said. “He was smart. He’d make jokes occasionally, but you wouldn’t think that seriously of him because he would look at you every day and be like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ He would personally care about you. He would just be nice, but all of a sudden, I guess people can change.”

“I honestly can’t believe that he did it,” Lara added. “It’s been hard.”

Lara wasn’t in the commons that day when the shooting started. He was in the band room and remembers seeing on social media that someone had opened fire at the high school.

He thought it might be a prank or a joke, but then he saw his fellow students fleeing and heard the screams and the blaring ambulance sirens. He saw victims, some of them friends, suffering from gunshot wounds and blood splattered in the commons, where students had gathered, as they would like any typical day.

Tanner Fuller, a junior at Marshall County High School, was standing near the school’s front office, about 30 feet from where Parker opened fire.

When he heard the first shots, Fuller fled down a nearby hallway. As he ran, he spotted fellow student Daniel Austin limping and holding his shoulder. He’d been shot in the arm.

“He had blood all over, all down his front,” Tanner said. “He was dripping it all outside. I had blood on me from helping him, and it was pretty graphic.”

Fuller says he helped the teen to a clearing about 100 feet outside of the school, helping load Austin into a friend’s car so he could be taken to a nearby hospital. Fuller used a T-shirt he was going to wear in gym class to cover Austin’s wound.

“When I was helping him it didn’t look like he was shot in the shoulder,” Fuller said. “It looked more like he was shot in the chest, and I was worried about that.”

Fuller would like to see his school hire more security officers and look at long-term use of metal detectors.

Still, he says it would have been difficult for anyone to respond to a shooting that ended so quickly.

Lara said he would like to see stricter gun laws enacted to keep firearms away from minors coupled with increased school security measures, including more guards on school grounds.

“It’s tragic that what happened made our school realize that we have too many openings for students to just wander around the halls,” Lara said.

“I think that it’s great that we now get bag-checked whether people like it or not. I think that it’s great that they use the wands because you can’t take anything out of your bag and put it on your body.”

But Fuller said he doesn’t see how stricter gun policies would help.

“Someone came in and shot up the school,” he said. “Who thinks to do that? I just don’t see a law stopping them from wanting to kill countless people.”

Lovett, the Marshall County Schools superintendent, was one of the first on the scene Jan. 23 and said he didn’t see gun control as the “end all be all” policy to make schools safer because those hoping to inflict harm on others will find ways to obtain weapons.

Still, Lovett said he saw no reason for people to own high-powered rifles like an AR-15, the type of gun used in the Lakeland, Fla., shooting.

“Those types of weapons should be illegal anyway,” he said.

Lovett said he would like to see additional mental health services available to students and more resource officers assigned to schools. He noted that when he was in school, no one batted an eye when students had hunting rifles in their trucks.

Having trained teachers and staff using non-lethal weapons might have helped stop Parker, he said.

However, Lovett is not in favor of allowing teachers to bring their own guns to school. What would happen if armed teachers lost their tempers or students got the weapons somehow, he asked.

“I don’t think that’s the right answer,” Lovett said.

Going forward in Frankfort

 A number of bills have been filed in the General Assembly in response to the Marshall County High School shooting, although none have been heard in committee.

Senate Bill 162, for example, would allow trained teachers and employees to use less-than-lethal weapons like rubber bullets and flash grenades in life-threatening situations. Another, Senate Bill 103, would give local school boards authority to designate staffers as school marshals, allowing them to be armed in schools.

House Bill 498 would ban the sale of certain semiautomatic weapons to those younger than 21 unless they’re in the military or on police forces, and House Bill 502 would ban the sale of rapid-fire gun equipment like bump stocks, require secure gun storage, create a new criminal offense for those who buy firearms for people prohibited from possessing guns, among several provisions.

And a pair of bills filed in the House would address mental health services for students. House Bill 538 would require students to submit proof of completed mental health screenings before enrolling in elementary, middle and high schools, and House Bill 604 would require schools to employ at least one mental health professional for every 1,500 students enrolled beginning next school year.

But it’s unclear which, or if any, school-safety measures will wind up on Bevin’s desk by the end of the legislative session.

“At this time I’m reviewing everything, reading through the various bills that we have, but first and foremost my focus on this is just to have dialogue,” Wise said. “Let’s talk about the topic in a very bipartisan manner.”

Action has been swifter in Florida after the Feb. 14 shootings there. Gov. Rick Scott announced a proposal Friday to outlaw bump stocks, prevent violent or mentally ill people from buying guns and raise the minimum age to buy firearms to 21.

He also called for $450 million to upgrade school security infrastructure, ensure every school has a resource officer and hire additional mental health professionals.

President Donald Trump has also offered his thoughts on school safety measures, saying he would support banning bump stocks, raising the age to buy rifles to 21 and arming teachers in schools.

Bevin said during an interview on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on Monday that it would be "premature" to consider any one proposal the solution to school safety concerns, and he also said he would be open to "any and all possibilities" to make schools safer.

Asked about Trump’s proposal to allow some teachers to carry firearms in schools during an appearance on Fox & Friends Tuesday, Bevin said it’s an idea worth considering. Those who would take on such a responsibility should do so on a voluntary basis, the governor said.

“I think teachers who are willing should go through extensive training, far above and beyond what it takes to be a concealed-carry gun owner, should go through a battery of psychiatric tests to ensure that they are mentally able because not just carrying concealed, not just handling the pressure, but doing it in a situation with students in a school takes a special degree of training,” said Bevin, who has pushed back against calls for stricter gun laws in response to recent school violence.

“But it shouldn’t just be teachers. It should be available to administrators, custodians, coaches, anyone inside that school on a voluntary basis. I think we would be foolish not to consider that as a possibility.”

One Kentucky school district is considering such a step. The Pike County Board of Education unanimously approved a policy Monday that would allow teachers to carry concealed firearms through a partnership with the Pike County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.

“You hope you’re making the right decision for kids, but I know right now something’s got to be done,” Pike County Schools Superintendent Reed Adkins told the newspaper. “We may be criticized, but at the end of the day I’ll take criticism to protect my students.”

The state’s largest school district is also looking to the General Assembly for help in improving school safety. During a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, acting Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said he wanted to see legislators increase funding for school security and counselors in schools throughout the district.

“I think those are critical measures that we can do together as a district, as a state and as a nation as we move forward,” he said.

Michael Dorn – executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit based in Macon, Ga., that focuses on campus safety and crisis preparedness – said the most effective prevention tools he’s seen are programs focused on multidisciplinary threat assessment and management, suicide prevention and screening, and training teachers and staff to identify students who carry concealed guns based on their behaviors.

Dorn said those low-cost approaches have prevented several attacks from materializing, but they’re also often the least discussed after school shootings. That’s partly due to federal budget cuts, he said.

“I think most people would prefer to never have the event than to be trying to respond to it,” he said. “Once the event starts, it’s going to end badly. Period.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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