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House committee endorses school safety bill but questions linger about student privacy, cost

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - Feb 8th, 2019 @ 8:57am

SALT LAKE CITY — The House Education Committee unanimously endorsed Thursday an omnibus measure intended to enhance students' physical and emotional safety through initiatives to hire more support personnel and add physical safety improvement to schools.

The bill envisions spending $30 million ongoing to help school districts and charter schools hire mental health professionals and other support personnel and some $66 million in one-time funds for structural safety measures, which could include vestibule doors or software that enable schools to easily report threats or active incidents.

Although the committee's vote for HB120 was unanimous, some committee members and members of the public raised concerns about student privacy and the cost of the initiative.

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, questioned the information that would be collected about students when school officials conduct a threat assessment.

"How long would it be kept and who would have access to it?" she asked.

Christy Walker, school and student safety specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, said current laws permit the collection of such data and great care is taken to ensure the state is in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and other privacy measures.

Andrew Riggle, representing the Disability Law Center, questioned why disabilities were not among a list of characteristics that HB120 says may not be used to refer students to a school safety team.

The characteristics listed in the bill included race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin or citizenship status.

"This is a great concern to us because of the data coming out of Virginia," Riggle said.

In Virginia, 12 percent of the school-age population are students with disabilities but 1/3 of referrals to threat assessment teams are students with disabilities, he said.

"We think it is very important that students with disabilities be included in the list of characteristics and that referrals to the team be based only on behavior," Riggle said.

Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute, which describes itself as a free market think tank, questioned the point of conducting school climate surveys, which would ask students, staff, community members whther they feel their school is safe. Gun-free schools give people a false sense of security, he said.

"We all want our children to be safe. However, feeling safe is not the same thing as being safe," he said.

Mary Nielson, representing the Utah School Boards Association, spoke in support of the bill, noting that the resources tied to the proposal would "help rural districts probably more than the urban districts."

Nielson, who is from Juab School District, said rural schools struggle to find the resources to hire mental health professionals due to funding.

"A lot of our buildings are old," she said, describing one school that provides teachers with "old fashioned keys" to enter and exit doors. "We don't even have a card reader," she said.

Ward's bill would make resources available for physical improvement to schools to improve safety.

"This is going to change how we can keep our kids safe. Local school boards are in support," she said.

While he voted to support the bill, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, and co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, said the legislation would need to be considered in context of available funding and other requests.

"This is really a funding bill that's going to have to be decided later," he said.

Marjorie Cortez

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