A Utah lawmaker wants a formal study of how other states keep students safe at school in hopes of improving security in Utah classrooms.
“My foremost goal, absolutely, is to make sure we’ve got secure schools for our kids,” said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.
Meantime, Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, says one of the best ways to keep schools safe is to provide teachers with a concealed weapon permit and the necessary training to respond in case of an emergency.
“We’re not saying they have to [be armed], but teachers need to understand that they have that ability if they so choose,” Oda said.
The efforts come in the wake of a school shooting in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including the gunman, and has re-ignited the public discussion over stricter gun-control laws and improved mental-health services.
Utah House Republicans, who met in an all-day caucus on Tuesday, said their goal was to be sensitive in the aftermath of the shooting and not politicize the tragedy. That sentiment was echoed Wednesday by Senate President-elect Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, who said Republican senators who met in caucus were wary of addressing an issue with so much raw emotion.
“We have just felt there’s a lot shaking out with the incident in Connecticut, which we felt is a horrible tragedy, and I know that there are some bills that will probably come out and we want to effectively address this,” he said.
McCay sent a letter to legislative leaders on Monday, requesting a legislative audit to review school safety procedures in Utah and in other states and to identify potential improvements that could keep kids safe.
“There are best practices around the country that are being implemented in our state and some that aren’t, and I believe that a concerted effort and data review and review of policies around the country will provide us with a foundation of how we can better secure our schools.”
“There’s no reason a parent should be afraid to send their kids to school,” he said.
McCay said that, if the audit identifies specific changes that need to be made, he will be the first in line to advocate for state money to help meet those security needs.
Legislative leaders did not vote to make McCay’s audit request a priority. McCay said some, outgoing Senate President Michael Waddoups, in particular, felt it came too soon after the Connecticut massacre. But McCay said he will keep pursuing the request and also plans to meet with Gov. Gary Herbert and ask him to take up the effort.
“If that doesn’t work, I’ll find another way to get it done. The information is necessary,” McCay said.
Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education, said each school in Utah is required to have an emergency response plan to deal with fire, earthquake and violent acts and drills are done at the schools throughout the year.
He said the state office has model policies for those plans and staff from the state office work with the school districts to provide advice on the security plans.
“Our end of it is, here’s what is very helpful to have in the policies and we leave it to the locals on the assumption that what is important at White Horse High is not the same thing that’s important at West High and what is important at Lone Peak,” he said.
But looking at other states’ policies seems like a “very worthwhile process,” Peterson said, and is something that the state office would support.
Utah law prohibits possession of a firearm on school grounds unless the owner has a concealed weapons permit or is a law enforcement officer. It is one of only two state — the other is Kansas — allowing permit holders to carry firearms on school grounds.
To encourage teachers to get their permit, Oda said he and other instructors have been offering free concealed weapons courses to teachers and full-time school employees for the last three years. Oda estimates he has taught about 70 teachers the course.
“You can’t guarantee safety,” said Oda. “But what it boils down to is this: We don’t know what could happen or what would happen if we had someone there, whether it be a teacher or parent, who was armed at the time a bad incident was taking place. … However, we know with absolute certainty what happens when they aren’t.”
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired high school English teacher, said teachers she has talked to in recent days are unanimously opposed to more teachers taking guns to school, although many would like to see more police officers patrolling schools.
“It was just resoundingly no,” she said. “I’m not speaking for all teachers, but I feel that most teachers do not want to be armed or feel comfortable that they would have the level of training that a trained officer would have.”
She said a review of safety procedures, like McCay is requesting, would be a good idea, and she is trying to organize a forum where teachers, mental health professionals, gun rights advocates, parents and others could discuss the issues surrounding school safety.
She acknowledges that, given Utah’s overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, changing the state’s gun laws is highly unlikely.
Oda said he doesn’t think any additional gun laws are warranted, either at the state or federal level, and contends that gun laws only affect responsible gun owners, not those who might go on a rampage.
“None of the 20,000-plus gun laws in the United States have ever saved a life,” he said. “Those laws are only restrictive against a law-abiding citizen.”
He said the mental health profession — which is too quick to prescribe mood-altering medication to students — bears part of the blame for shooting sprees.
“We’re too quick to medicate our youth,” he said. “Then you add violent video games on top of that when their minds are already screwed up and they’re going to lose touch with reality.… The mental health industry has not done their job.”
“I think that’s something we’re going to have to address, but I don’t want to base anything on panic like the Obama administration is doing” in calling for gun control, Oda said. “There’s no logic to what they’re doing.”