Kentucky State Capitol

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – The sponsor of a comprehensive school safety bill said Tuesday that he does not expect “major” changes to the legislative, but minor tweaks might be on the horizon as it begins moving through the General Assembly when lawmakers return to the Capitol next week.

Feedback on Senate Bill 1, which was crafted in the aftermath of a shooting last year at Marshall County High School that left two students dead and several others injured, was largely positive during a two-hour, discussion-only meeting of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who is sponsoring Senate Bill 1 and chairs the committee, said the timing of legislative action on the measure depends on Senate GOP leadership.

“But I look for Senate Bill 1 to move very quick once we get back in session,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting.

The legislation calls for school districts to hire more school resource officers and mental health counselors as funding becomes available, improved training for law enforcement officers hired as resource officers and staff tasked with leading school-based security teams, the creation of a state school security marshal, and more stringent building and classroom protocols to make it more difficult for intruders to enter schools, among other things.

But some who testified before the committee offered suggestions that they said would improve SB 1.

Linda Tyree, president of the Kentucky School Counseling Association, asked lawmakers to consider putting school counselors rather than mental health professionals in charge of the trauma-informed teams that would identify and help students who are affected by trauma in their lives.

SB 1 calls for mental health professionals hired at school districts to lead such teams, which may consist of school counselors, school nurses, family resource and youth service coordinators, and school psychologists.

“We really feel like a more appropriate structure would be to have a school counselor lead that trauma-informed team and then have those mental health professionals be possible members of that team as needed by that district,” Tyree said.

The legislation calls for districts and charter schools to hire one mental health professional for every 1,500 as funding becomes available, but it’s far more ambitious in beefing up the ranks of school resource officers patrolling Kentucky’s school hallways. SB 1 tasks school districts and law enforcement agencies with finding ways to put at least one such officer in every school in the state.

That mandate concerned Keturah Herron, a field organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

“There’s been several data points and several incidents that have shown that SROs in school have been problematic, specifically for black and brown youth and poor white students,” Herron said, citing the 2017 incident at Jeffersontown High School in which a police officer used a Taser on a student while arresting him.

But Wise, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee, said to him, resource officers represent “one of the best” tools in SB 1 to boost security at schools.

The Kentucky Law Enforcement Council and Kentucky Center for School Safety would be tasked with implementing a three-tiered, 120-hour training course for school resource officers under the bill, which would include not only training on matters like assessing school threats and how to respond to them, but also diversity and youth mental health.

Department of Criminal Justice Training Commissioner Alex Payne, whose agency oversees KLEC, said he’s reached out to Kentucky Youth Advocates to collaborate on training protocols for school resource officers.

Payne said he “couldn’t think of anything worse” than simply “putting a plain old security officer” in a school setting.

“You have to have somebody that’s invested in that school, invested with their heart and mind and are there for the right reasons,” he said. “And if you don’t … you’re just going to have bad things happen.”

Others on the committee questioned the cost of SB 1. Wise said he’s requested a fiscal note on the legislation but that any state funding will need to come in next year’s budget-writing session.

The bill calls for school districts to rely on any federal, state and local funding available for provisions like adding resource officers and mental health counselors. It also allows nonprofit foundations that benefit particular school systems to take donations specifically earmarked for school safety initiatives.

Wise conceded that state finances are strained, particularly by multi-billion-dollar pension debt.

“Unfortunately, we’re not Tennessee,” he said. “Tennessee’s putting $40 million into school resource officers. We don’t have the tax revenue for that.”

He added that many school systems throughout Kentucky don’t have the local resources that are available in areas like Jefferson County, where JCPS is looking to hire an additional 60 mental health professionals, and Fayette County, where property tax rates were increased by a nickel last year to fund $13.5 million in school safety measures.

Officials in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services have said Medicaid funds could be available for schools, and Wise said wealthy donors may emerge in rural areas to help finance initiatives to improve security at schools.

“We don’t have to always have the state fund, fund, fund if we can find other revenues,” he said.

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

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