LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Gov. Andy Beshear announced Friday that he has signed a bill into law that will require school resource officers to carry firearms while on duty.
Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, drew criticism locally as the Jefferson County Board of Education grappled with whether or not its internal team of school security should be armed.
The new law took effect immediately upon Beshear's signature.
A coalition of SB 8 opponents emerged as the legislation went to Beshear’s desk with broad bipartisan support, with just nine lawmakers voting against it in the Senate and House combined. All of those "no" votes came from Democratic legislators, most of them representing areas of Jefferson County.
Despite that opposition, Beshear said schools need armed police to act as a "deterrent" against school violence. He cited deadly shootings at Heath High School in 1997 and Marshall County High School in 2018 before announcing his decision to sign SB 8.
"I simply cannot ask a school resource officer to stop an armed gunman entering a school without them having the ability to not only achieve this mission, but also to protect themselves," Beshear said during a Capitol news conference Friday.
"We must be able to stop the worst of the worst, which we have now seen several times just in my lifetime."
Those who urged Beshear to veto SB 8 raised concerns that armed police in schools will put minority youth at risk of trauma and entering the criminal justice system and that the bill will strip the school board of its authority to determine the best course of action for Jefferson County Public Schools on this issue.
They also worry that armed police in schools will hurt minority students’ sense of belonging in schools.
One person who urged Beshear to veto SB 8 is so distraught at his decision that she's contemplating opening her own K-12 school in Louisville.
Tyra Walker, a teacher at Roosevelt-Perry Elementary and co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, says she already has a building in mind but declined to provide details. She's also completed coursework to qualify her to become a principal, she said.
Walker worries that armed police will jeopardize, rather than protect, the safety of her son, a sophomore at Central High School.
JCPS and Louisville Metro Police are reviewing an incident that happened at the school last week when a Central junior was dragged outside by law enforcement after a homecoming dance. The student, Donavan Howlett, said he had wanted to wait with his date, who suffers from sickle cell anemia, for their ride inside, away from temperatures below freezing.
"I don't want to pull my son out of Central, but I fear for my son's life if there's an armed officer," she said in a phone interview with WDRB News.
"These legislators want to run our district, and that's what they're doing, and (Beshear's) allowing it to happen," she continued. "I'm just not for it, just not for it at all. It puts our children in danger because they're already disproportionately suspended."
The Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression delivered a Feb. 13 letter to Beshear seeking his veto.
Two Jefferson County school board members who signed that letter -- Vice Chairman Chris Kolb and Joe Marshall -- did not respond to messages seeking comment on Beshear's decision to sign SB 8 into law.
Beshear said during Friday's news conference that he understood concerns opponents have raised about armed police in schools and how interactions with officers and trigger past trauma in some students.
His cabinet secretary, J. Michael Brown, stressed the importance of selecting the right officers to work in schools and providing robust training on how they should interact with students of diverse backgrounds.
To that end, Brown said the state is open to suggestions on training curricula for school resource officers, who are currently required to take 120 hours of training in subjects like threat assessments, diversity and bias awareness, youth mental health, and trauma-informed care within three years of employment plus 40 hours of annual in-service training.
"We need to move quickly, but we want to do it with as many voices as we can," Beshear said. "... My goal is always to get it right, and here getting it right is not just about training them to keep a school safe in the worst of the worst possibilites, but to start addressing the reasons that some kids might not feel safe because of a police officer in the school."
But Walker suggested that officers should be posted outside of schools as a preventative measure to keep threats out rather than inside with students.
She also said the state should consider investing in other measures to improve schools' atmospheres, such as hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes.
"I'm disappointed," Walker said. "There should have been local control. We do not need an armed officer in our schools for a school shooter when there's no data that shows that an armed SRO or officer prevented a school shooting."
While the issue of arming school security officers has been a thorny issue for the Jefferson County Board of Education, JCPS administrators have drafted policies that allow them to carry firearms while on duty.
Jonathan Lowe, head of policy and systems for JCPS, said during a board subcommittee meeting this week that the district expected SB 8 would become law “either through him signing or him not signing or through a veto that gets overridden.”
SB 8 tweaks a sweeping school safety bill passed by lawmakers last year that requires districts to have enough school resource officers to cover every school as funding and qualified personnel become available.
The new law amends that language so that officers can patrol campuses rather than individual schools. It also adds mental health counselors to the requirement that districts employ one school counselor for every 250 students, also as funding and qualified personnel become available.
Wise, a Campbellsville Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, praised Beshear's decision to sign SB 8 into law, calling it "crucial to the General Assembly’s continued efforts to protect Kentucky’s children, teachers and staff by improving the safety of our schools."
"I am appreciative of all those who provided the necessary input and support to see this measure come to fruition," Wise said in a statement.
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