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SALT LAKE CITY — What's the cost of enhancing school safety in Utah?
A proposal presented to a legislative committee Wednesday seeks more than $195 million, most of it for school building improvements and $30 million to hire or contract with mental health and school safety personnel who would work in schools.
The Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee heard the proposal but took no action.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, said the size of the request gave him pause.
"I'm struggling here with this amount of money. My entire career has been about helping students and caring for them as a school counselor, teacher and coach. But I see these dollars that could be spent face-to-face with teachers," Owens said.
Owens said he was "OK with" appropriating money to local schools to retrofit buildings to make them safer but he questioned other aspects of the proposal.
"I feel like schools are the safest place we can be. I feel this is a knee-jerk reaction to our society. We can't fix every ill in the society. Where do we draw a line and say we can only do so much and take these resources and have them best spent with teachers and students and, I would say, counselors … because that's a lot of money," he said.
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who facilitated the meetings of the Utah School Safety Commission, said the goal of hiring mental health professionals and school resource officers is that they would interact with and help students.
"Every parent needs to know we're doing the very best we can, that schools are the safest place they can be," said Ward, who is a family physician.
Research-backed school safety programs used in other states have resulted in reductions in long-term school suspensions and improved perceptions that schools are safer, which are approaches Utah may want to adopt, he said.
"There is no guarantee. I think this is our best effort," said Ward.
The proposal asks that the $30 million to help schools hire professionals for mental health and school safety services become an ongoing appropriation.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said ongoing funding will help ensure that schools can to retain mental health care providers, school resource officers or other professionals.
Meanwhile, the plan seeks $164 million in one-time funding to "increase on-site protection and resources through construction."
Many schools have already paid for safety improvements such as installing surveillance cameras, vestibule doors that must be opened by school personnel, and even fire doors capable of sealing off wings of a school.
"I've yet to be in a school that they haven't done something," said Dickson.
The State School Board would establish rules to determine how to distribute funding for personnel or physical improvements to schools, according to the proposal.
The plan also seeks nearly $1.3 million for the State Board of Education to fund and maintain a threat assessment database tool; $180,000 for a safety analyst position and $65,000 for mental health support services training.
It also asks for $300,000 to be appropriated to other agencies, half for a school-public safety law enforcement liaison hired by Department of Public Safety, and the rest for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to employ a school-based mental health specialist. Both would be housed in the offices of the Utah State Board of Education.
Every parent needs to know we're doing the very best we can, that schools are the safest place they can be.
–Rep. Ray Ward
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, described the proposal as "a pig in the poke."
"We're being asked to come up with $164 million and we're not sure where it's going," he said.
He recalled a school technology initiative in the '90s that resulted in schools in Utah having fewer computers than the rest of the nation over the 10 years of the plan at a time when ownership of home computers in Utah exceeded the national average.
Others, like Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, questioned if the proposal would contribute to inequity, rendering "some schools safer than others" or penalizing schools that have already spent money on safety features.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said care needs to be taken so that school safety features don't increase student, educator and staff anxiety.
"I don't want them to look like fortresses. I don't want to see money spent on doors that come clanking down like prisons," she said.