Kentucky State Capitol

Kentucky State Capitol

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Legislation that would require school resource officers to carry firearms while on duty was sent to Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk by the House of Representatives on a 78-8 vote Friday.

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, comes as the Jefferson County Board of Education grapples with the decision of whether school security officers in Kentucky’s largest school district will be armed. Five of the eight lawmakers who voted against SB 8, all Democrats, represent areas of Jefferson County.

Crystal Staley, Beshear's communications director, said in a statement that the governor "believes every child should be safe at school and he will review the bill once it arrives on his desk."

While it passed with overwhelming support, lawmakers debated SB 8 for more than an hour and a half on the House floor.

Supporters say law enforcement officers in schools need guns to meet grave threats that may emerge in school hallways.

Last year's School Safety and Resiliency Act, which SB 8 tweaks, passed in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting at Marshall County High School in January 2018 in which two students were killed.

"The fact of the matter is shootings take place in a matter of seconds to very few minutes," said Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville. "Oftentimes, more times than not when you're waiting on reactionary response from someone outside the properties, it's going to be over before they get there."

But Rep. Lisa Willner, a Louisville Democrat who voted against SB 8, challenged the thinking that armed security officers actually make schools safer. 

"We have lots of abundant research showing that the way we keep children safe is through a sense of belonging and good relationships with trusted adults," she said. "We don't have research showing that children are safer in schools by the presence of an armed officer."

Opponents of the measure also raised concerns about how negative interactions with police can traumatize students, particularly minority youth.

Last year's school safety law includes mandatory training in subjects like trauma-informed care and implicit bias, but Rep. Charles Booker worried that minority youth could be at risk in the presence of law enforcement officers.

"We have to understand that because of how our institutions have been built, how our economy and our government have been designed and built and thrived, there are certain populations of people that get criminalized, get seen to be an animal, get seen to be a deadly threat just from their mere existence," said Booker, a Louisville Democrat who also voted against SB 8.

"And if you haven't felt that personally, I understand why this conversation feels like a waste of time to you, but I'm standing up as someone who has felt that and has seen it for my entire life."

SB 8 supporters suggested that having armed resource officers would give students who feel threatened by police opportunities of positive interactions with law enforcement.

Still, much of their support for SB 8 centered around making sure officers can respond to threats at schools.

"We talk about cultural problems. We talk about race problems," said Rep. Randy Bridges, R-Paducah. "I don't care if you're white. I don't care if you're brown. I don't care if you're any shade in between.

"There's one color that's more important than that because I've spent 20 years listening to these officers, listening to these students, listening to these teachers. That color is blood red when it's pooled on the floor."

The School Safety and Resiliency Act requires districts to hire one school resource officer for every school as funding and prospective employees become available. SB 8 would amend that to stipulate that districts must have an armed officer for every school campus.

The new school safety law also requires districts to hire one school counselor for every 250 students, also as money and qualified personnel are available. SB 8 would add mental health professionals to that mandate.

A pair of floor amendments offered by Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Fairdale, that would have required officers to wear body cameras and given school districts the option of arming them with non-lethal weapons failed to pass Friday.

SB 8 cleared the Senate on a 34-1 vote Jan. 27.

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