FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – As Kentucky lawmakers grapple with how to prevent future shootings in the wake of gun violence at Marshall County High School that killed two students last month, a pair of school safety experts told legislators Thursday that developing inclusive learning environments where students feel comfortable talking to teachers and administrators will be key.

The House and Senate education committees heard from William Modzeleski, a national school safety consultant who formerly worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, and Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, during a joint meeting.

No legislation was up for consideration, and Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. John “Bam” Carney, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said they called the meeting to start an open conversation about school safety at the Capitol.

“What we want to do is be very deliberate, have these open discussions and to also look for research-based, evidence-based practices that are effective,” Carney said. “That’s the goal as we move forward.”

Modzeleski urged lawmakers to consider a “comprehensive” approach to improve security at Kentucky schools and to “strike while the fire is hot.”

Gabe Parker, a 15-year-old student at Marshall County High School, is charged with two counts of murder and 14 counts of assault after allegedly opening fire on his schoolmates with a handgun on Jan. 23.

Weeks later, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 students with an AR-15 on Feb. 14.

“I’ve seen it over and over and over again for the past 20 years, and I must say that this time it might be different, but up until the shooting at Parkland, what would typically happen – it happened in Sandy Hook – is that if action wasn’t taken immediately following the event, then nothing happened,” Modzeleski said. “It sort of petered out and it died out.”

One of the most important things that schools can do in trying to prevent attacks is fostering an open environment where students feel comfortable speaking with and trust their teachers, school administrators and parents, he said.

He cited a two-year study conducted by the Safe Schools Initiative that examined 37 students who were involved in 41 violent incidents across the U.S. that found in many instances, those plotting to hurt others told others about their plans.

A key question, Modzeleski said, is what keeps kids from coming forward with information that could save lives?

The study showed that students either didn’t think the plans would actually come to fruition or didn’t trust their school teachers or administrators, he said, adding that education laws also prevent administrators from sharing details of disciplinary actions with students who report their concerns.

The study group, made up mostly of law enforcement officials, found that improving connectedness between students and school officials would be pivotal to stopping future attacks before they happen.

“There are a lot of things we could do, a lot of things we should do,” Modzeleski said. “But the one thing, the one thing I honestly believe will have more impact than anything else is forming relationships with those individuals who are in schools.”

“This is something that requires the entire community and everybody in it,” he added.

While no legislation was offered during Thursday’s meeting, a number of initiatives have been proposed in the General Assembly, such as allowing schools to designate an employee to serve as an armed marshal or give trained teachers and employees non-lethal weapons to use in life-threatening situations, enacting stricter gun laws and requiring schools to have more mental health professionals on staff.

Asked whether he believed arming teachers would be a viable strategy moving forward, Modzeleski said, “No way.”

“I guess I’d say since I’m not representing a government entity like the Department of Education or anybody, I’d say no way in hell,” he said.

“What he said,” Akers said.

Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth, asked what would be a viable option rather than arming teachers considering that it could take law enforcement time to respond to a shooting at some rural schools.

Modzeleski said a number of programs could be implemented to make students more comfortable reporting others’ plans for violence, and both he and Akers said other districts have put more armed school resource officers or military veterans in schools, although Modzeleski said having more security officers doesn’t necessarily make schools safer.

“There’s not a scintilla of evidence out there from research that says that schools security officers are necessary and school security officers result in a reduction in crime and violence in schools,” he said.

“Can they? Yes of course. Can they provide something good? Yes. Do they make parents feel comfortable? The answer’s yes.”

He also said that using metal detectors at school entryways might not be the most effective tool since those who want to cause harm could find ways to evade them. Additional mental health professionals in schools could also help, although Modzeleski said that would depend on training.

Trent Lovett, Marshall County Schools superintendent, traveled to Frankfort for Thursday’s meeting and said he was interested in many points of the discussion.

He reiterated that he did not support arming teachers in schools, adding that he didn’t think any individual piece could have stopped the carnage that killed two 15-year-old students at Marshall County High School.

“I think there are a variety of things that can be done,” Lovett said. “I’m not sure that there’s one fix that can solve all the problems.”

He added that he appreciated the legislature’s attention to the topic of school safety in light of what happened at Marshall County High School last month.

“As a group they are willing to sit and listen to an expert to give them some ideas to move forward,” Lovett said.

Sen. Steve West, a Paris Republican who’s sponsoring legislation that would allow schools to designate armed marshals from among their staffs, said he’s been working to amend Senate Bill 103 before Thursday’s meeting.

“I don’t think it should be taken off the table, but I’ve already been in the process of changing my bill, making it more comprehensive, making it more of a school security bill,” West said, noting that state law already allows school districts to designate armed staff.

The Pike County Board of Education voted Monday to start work on a program with the Pike County Sheriff’s Office that would authorize some teachers to carry concealed weapons.

“I do think we can build a framework of how does that happen, how are these people trained, who’s in there, all the school security,” he said.

“We have a school security problem. Mr. Akers talked about that we have this framework set up for school security, but how do we enforce that school security program? There’s no teeth in our law to go after our schools who do not have a school security program.”

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

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