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School safety bill passes Utah House on vote of 45-27

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - Feb. 21, 2019 at 5:48 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives on Thursday voted 45-27 to pass school safety legislation created in the aftermath of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018.

The latest version of HB120, sponsored by Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, is intended to enhance students' physical and emotional safety through initiatives to hire more support personnel and add 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 $67 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.

The Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee has prioritized funding for both purposes.

Although a majority of House members supported the bill, some raised concerns about students identified by school-based threat assessment teams.

“There’s parts of this that worry me about whether we’re trying to predict bad behavior before bad behavior or threatening behavior has occurred,” said Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi.

Ward said great care went into drafting the bill to ensure “we’re not just going to look at someone’s characteristics and predict what (they're) going to do."

“But what we are going to do is look at their behavior. So if there’s a behavior that’s a threat, we are going to look at that and make our best response to it.”

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Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, spoke in support of the bill. In particular, he said he appreciated language that asks schools to establish committees to use “evidence-based approaches” to improve school climate and address bullying.

“If we focus so much on the violence, which we’re all concerned about, and we don’t focus on the antecedent issues, then we’re just trying to clean up water that’s been spilled on the table by mopping up the floor. We need to tip the glass up and we need to clean up what’s on the table and then go clean up what’s on the floor,” Briscoe said.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, questioned whether the bill established minimum standards for the physical safety of schools.

“It does not. Part of that is because of all the different discussions we’ve had. Our schools are in so many different places with what they need, it did not seem possible to come up with a standard that made sense,” Ward said.

Coleman continued, “So this distribution of funding, which is no small amount, could result in ongoing disparity between levels of physical safety of schools?”

Ward replied: “I think it will improve physical safety in all of our schools.”

In the end, school safety depends on many things “out of our control,” such as the strength of families, students’ mental health, how students treat one another and “the strength, kindness and resourcefulness of our schoolteachers and administrators,” Ward said.

But HB120 is an important step forward, he said.

“It will help us understand better how our students and schools are doing. It will get resources where they are needed. It will continue over time to provide the best evidence how we should structure our system to help our students, and I hope to have your support,” Ward said.

The bill moves to the Senate for its consideration.

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