No ‘perfect choices:’ Wise’s school safety bill passes Senate

Published 4:42 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

FRANKFORT — An update to 2019’s School Safety and Resiliency Act got Senate approval Tuesday after a 28-10 vote.

The bill is a “stopgap” measure for school districts that have been unable to meet the 2019 law’s requirement for one school resource officer per school campus, said sponsor Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville.

It would allow so-called guardians—discharged veterans, retired Kentucky state troopers, retired special and sworn law enforcement officers and former federal law enforcement officers—to support current SROs or serve in a temporary safety role until districts can find SROs.

All Democrats voted against the bill, alongside Republican Sens. Danny Carroll, John Schickel and Whitney Westerfield.

What does Senate Bill 2 do?

Under SB2, guardians would be able to carry weapons, but would not have arrest power like SROs. Otherwise, local boards would be free to determine whether guardians are in volunteer or paid roles and what they can and cannot do, Wise said.

An updated version of the bill requires guardians to complete 160 hours of curriculum, including active shooter response, enhanced handgun performance and patrol rifle training.

This includes SRO-based curriculum, which focuses on de-escalation strategies, youth mental health awareness, youth drug use and abuse, social media cyber security and diversity and bias awareness training.

Guardians would have to pass a background check, medical exam and polygraph test. They also must be certified by the Center for School Safety, have their concealed carry license and go through drug and psychological screenings. If they have a felony conviction or a misdemeanor for sexual abuse or misconduct, they could not be hired.

Senate Bill 2 also updates some aspects of the School Safety and Resilience Act’s mental health provisions.

It would double the number of suicide awareness and prevention trainings per year and lower the grade level from grades 6-12 to 4-12, based on data showing that younger kids are experiencing suicidal ideations.

The bill would require schools to create trauma-informed teams made up of school mental health professionals and SROs to identify and help students whose learning, behavior or relationships have been impacted by trauma. The teams would also be charged with helping other school personnel support their trauma-impacted students and identifying ways to build resiliency and wellness in all students.

Under the bill, schools would gather data on Medicaid billing for school-based mental health services, their progress toward SRO and mental health provider goals and their trauma-informed approach plans.

There is no funding attached to the bill. However, the current House budget includes nearly $35 million over the next two years to reimburse districts that hire SROs, as well as $7.4 million each year in reimbursements for school-based mental health professionals.

Districts would receive up to $20,000 for each campus with an SRO. Butler County Schools Superintendent Robert Tuck said that will help, but will barely cover half the actual cost.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said he could not support a bill that addresses increases in violence and school shootings with more guns and armed people, not less.

He said it ignores the fundamental problem: SROs are an unfunded mandate.

“We allow them but we don’t give schools the money to have them,” Thomas said. “So what we have four years later are several schools who don’t have SROs, which is dangerous for us.”

Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, also suggested appropriating funds for SROs in every school instead of passing this bill.

Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, said that in a perfect world, they wouldn’t have to talk about this issue.

“We’re talking about active shooter situations. In those situations, time is of the essence,” he said. “…would I rather have a trained, armed veteran on site ready to act or would I rather have a high trained SRO or law enforcement officer five minutes away? That’s the choice we have. We do not have perfect choices in this situation.”