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From left: Brian Cope, Teresa Cope, Secret Holt and Jasen Holt testify in favor of Senate Bill 1, the school safety bill, in the Senate Education Committee Feb. 7, 2019. Both families lost children in the January 2018 shooting at Marshall County High School.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- After emotional testimony from the parents of two Marshall County High School students who were killed in a shooting at the school last year, the Senate Education Committee unanimously passed a measure Thursday intended to make schools across Kentucky safer.

Sen. Max Wise, sponsor of Senate Bill 1, said he expects the legislation will be called for a vote in the Senate on Friday.

The parents of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, both 15 when they were killed in the shooting at MCHS in January 2018, urged lawmakers to pass SB 1, saying students should be able to attend school without fearing for their safety.

“This is the future of our state, our country, and we have to do this,” Brian Cope said. “We have to pass this.”

Wise, R-Campbellsville, has said the bill is the first phase in the push to improve security at state K-12 schools, with the second coming in next year’s session as lawmakers decide how much to budget for the initiatives detailed in SB 1 as they craft a two-year spending plan.

Lawmakers aren’t clear how much SB 1 will cost to implement, but both families said money for school safety should not be seen as a problem. Jasen Holt said he still fears that something could happen to his other children while they’re at school.

“The majority of you have kids, grandchildren,” Holt told lawmakers. “I wish nobody would ever be in our shoes. I relive it every day. … There has to be a change.”

The bill that passed the education panel Thursday was an amended version. The biggest change came in a section that would have originally required school districts to hire or contract with one mental health professional for every 1,500 students starting July 1, 2021.

Instead, SB 1 now calls for districts to hire a school counselor for every school starting July 1, 2021, with the goal of having one school counselor for every 250 students.

That would be a dramatic increase in the number of school counselors across Kentucky since there about one for every 1,500 students, according to Wise. SB 1 also would require school counselors to spend at least 60 percent of their worktime directly with students and direct the Office of Education Accountability to study the actual use of school counselors’ time in schools. That report would be due to the House and Senate education committees by Dec. 1.

Counselors also would be asked to collaborate with a mental health professional to develop a trauma-informed team that they would lead. The team’s goal would be to identify and help students whose learning, behavior or relationships have been affected by trauma.

School counselors are better suited to handle those tasks because “they truly know the kids within the walls of the school,” Wise said.

“We want the counselor – that’s their title, counselor – to be able to work with those students,” he told WDRB News after the meeting.

Other changes include adding two more members to the Kentucky Center for School Safety Board and drafting more consistent terminology regarding the employment of school resource officers, Wise said.

The legislation calls for safety improvements at the school level mostly through better training, tighter control of school entry points and more resource officers patrolling schools. The bill calls for school districts to hire at least one school resource officer for every school.

That was concerning for Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who said he worried that an increased police presence in schools could lead to more criminal cases brought against students.

Alex Payne, commissioner of the Department of Criminal Justice Training, said training for school resource officers would cover topics like

“The last thing we want to do with SROs through our training is create a pathway to prisons,” Payne said.

“It’s just the opposite. We want to create a pathway to hope. We want to create a pathway to success, and we want to train our SROs and get them in there that are geared that way. Anything else, in my mind, would be unacceptable.”

Funding was another question left unanswered in Thursday’s hearing, both for the state and for local school districts.

Wise said he’s optimistic, based on what he’s heard from fellow lawmakers, that the funding issue won’t derail SB 1 as it moves through the General Assembly.

“We can’t get so focused on a fiscal note to say, ‘Well, this is not going to be able to pass,’” Wise said. “We’re going to have to be serious about this conversation, and it’s part one of a two-part bill as we move forward next year with the budget to make sure that this stays out in front and we don’t lose focus of it.”

Lawmakers pushing for school safety legislation this year – a similar measure, House Bill 1, has also been filed – and funding next year will have advocates with a personal message to share.

When asked whether he plans to be back in Frankfort next year to push for SB 1 funding, Cope said he and his wife, Teresa, “will be fighting till I have my last breath.”

“We have to do something now because it will happen again,” Cope told reporters after the meeting. “This will happen again. Unfortunately it will happen again, and let’s try to prevent that because I don’t want anyone to go through what these two families have gone through this past year.

“It is the worst pain that a human being can go through.”

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

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