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'This is the time to do something': Lawmakers launch Utah Safe Schools Commission

'This is the time to do something': Lawmakers launch Utah Safe Schools Commission

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SALT LAKE CITY — The issue of school safety has reached a point of "ripeness," Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, says.

"This is the time to do something," Kennedy, R-Alpine, a family physician and attorney, said Thursday as he introduced the members of a diverse, nonpartisan commission that will meet regularly to develop recommendations to be forwarded to the Utah Legislature.

The commission will meet behind closed doors and issue no reports until it reaches its final recommendations, possibly before the start of the next school year, he said.

"Actually what I want is just great ideas and actionable items that are not dependent on some 30-page report that no one is going to read," Kennedy said.

The commission is "small enough to be manageable, intimate enough to actually have the conversations that we need to have," he said.

All options are on the table, the lawmaker said, which could include technology, architecture, exploring the psyches of people who commit violence as well as other considerations. He would not comment on possibly banning the sales of certain firearms.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and a commission member, said he looks forward to some "great dialogue. Everything is going to be on the table. As we dialogue and talk through these things we're going to identify the actual problems and trust in the solutions."

Just as Utah has developed a template to address its nation-leading rate of youth suicide, "we're looking forward to hopefully making a template for school safety across this nation as well."

The commission includes lawmakers from both parties, educators, a school architect, academics, the superintendent of the Utah State Hospital and a representative of a gun owners organization, among others.

One constituent group missing are students. Kennedy issued an open call for two students but said he preferred that students select their own representatives among students scheduled to march on the state Capitol later this month.

"March for Our Lives" demonstrations are being planned across the country on March 24.

The volunteer commission conducted its inaugural meeting on Thursday, Kennedy said.

After the nation's worst school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb 14, the urgency to do something about school safety has come to us in "real time" said Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

"It's time to act. It's time to act right now," Hughes said.

With the legislative session coming to a close, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, plans to introduce legislation to authorize judges, after a court hearing, to issue "extreme risk protective orders" permitting law enforcement to take away the guns of people in mental crisis after a judicial process. After 20 days, the person could return to court for further proceedings.

This is not about government seizing people's weapon. A judicial process is required, Handy said.

"This is a public health, public safety kind of thing. That's the way we have to think about it," Handy said.

The bill is expected to become public later in the day, Handy said.

While Kennedy said he had no preconceived notions going into the commission process, Dallas Earnshaw, superintendent of the Utah State Hospital, said he views this as an opportunity to educate people about mental illness.

Earnshaw said he is concerned about assumptions that mental illness leads to violence.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from mental illness who are not violent, who have never committed acts of violence, and it stigmatizes those with mental illness," he said.

It is also true that a small number of people who have committed violent acts have gone through the court system and have been committed to secure care after a judicial process intended to protect them and society from further harm, he said.

"I think we have to be very careful as we look at solutions and laws that we don't put everyone into one nice package that misses the boat," said Earnshaw, also a commission member.

Terryl Warner, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, said parents assume when their children walk into the doors of a school that they will be safe.

This commission will be looking at those assumptions and make sure those assumptions are followed through with," said Warner, who is also director of victim services for the Cache County Attorney’s Office.

Marjorie Cortez

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