Legislators Updated on School Safety

While inspections show that efforts to protect Kentucky schools are working, education experts testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Education on Friday to discuss the next steps.

State School Safety Marshal Ben Wilcox and Kentucky Center for School Safety Director Jon Akers described their collaborative efforts to implement changes from Senate Bill 1, the School Safety and Resiliency Act. Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) sponsored the 2019 KLC initiative that addressed various components of school safety. That included increasing the use of mental health professionals, school resource officers (SROs), and other efforts to improve building safety.

Akers called the law a national model. “I keep a phone log and went back through three years and counted 15 states that asked for copies of the legislation,” he said. Akers thanked lawmakers for continuing to fund the effort to protect schools. Since 1999, he reported that the General Assembly allocated $230.7 million.

Wilcox said he would report his assessment data to the Kentucky Center for School Safety in August and  legislators in September. His office recently completed its fourth study of schools, and preliminary numbers indicate schools are safer than they were three years ago.

“When our office started, we wanted to make sure we weren’t the hammer looking for the nail,” said Wilcox. “We were compliance officers who wanted to go into schools and make sure the mandates were being followed. If the mandates were not being followed, or a school was lacking, they got the information needed to get them to be where they needed to be safety-wise. Our goal is 100% compliance with everyone being safe in the state.”

Wise opened the meeting by declaring the need to evaluate progress in protecting Kentucky school children following the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting. When asked whether legislation passed here would prevent a similar situation, Wilcox said he was confident that measures taken here would have an impact. He referenced Kentucky’s layered security checks including exterior and interior door locks. “I can’t say that those things would have fixed Uvalde, but we are 99.7% compliant with doors in Kentucky,” he explained.

Wilcox and Akers expressed appreciation for their collaborative effort to harden buildings and prepare SROs. They also described how their missions focus on relationship building and mental health.

“There are tactics, there is active shooter, there is firearms training,” Wilcox said, “but there is a whole lot of mental health and trauma for students. What we like to say is that the majority of your time needs to be caring for and loving on kids, but when someone comes in that school, you have to become the tip of the spear and take care of business. And that is what we train for here in the state of Kentucky.”

The committee also focused on school mental health services. They heard from Northern Kentucky Education Council Executive Director Dr. Randy Poe, Ludlow Independent Schools Superintendent Mike Borchers, and Kentucky Association of School Administrators Executive Director Rhonda Caldwell.

They described the critical role threat assessments have played in some school districts. In some instances, teachers administer tests to determine whether a child is at risk. School psychologists and threat assessment teams then use the information to determine options.

Rep. C. Ed Massey (R-Hebron) asked whether transient students’ threat assessments are shared with other school districts. Akers questioned whether HIPPA would prevent sharing some information, but he wants to investigate solutions so that no children fall through the cracks. Borchers suggested that sharing information could help if a wide variety of schools used the same assessment system.

Currently, only 25 – 40 districts use threat assessments. Poe said that his organization raised $1.5 million to fund its program. He asked the committee to consider allocating a pool of money through the Kentucky Center for School Safety so more districts could offer the services.