Utahns creating school safety plan feel added urgency after Texas mass shooting

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Speaker Greg Hughes talks about the new Utah School Safety Commission during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

After another school shooting last week, this one in Texas, members of the Utah School Safety Commission say they’re inching closer toward a series of recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy here.

But the panel’s ideas may not veer into politically charged gun laws or even require a change to state law, said Terryl Warner, a member of the Utah Board of Education who sits on the informal safety panel.

“There are certain things that we can probably fix or do without legislative changes,” Warner said.

The progress of the safety commission has been relatively muted since its high-profile launch during a March press event in the ornate Gold Room of the state Capitol.

The 2018 legislative session closed without any major action on guns or school safety — a debate driven by the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 dead. And since the session ended, there’s been two months of relative silence as the safety commission met in closed meetings, overseen by a nonvoting “facilitator” in lieu of a chairperson. It held a few open houses in northern Utah and has solicited public comment through a website set up by the state House.

The original facilitator, Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, stepped away from the commission to focus on his U.S. Senate race, passing the baton to Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, to oversee the commission. Kennedy has vowed the group won’t make recommendations that “infringe on our Second Amendment rights.”

And from day one, there were questions about the political support for the panel and how effective it would turn out to be.

While House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Sandy, declared that it was “time to act,” just hours after the commission’s formal creation, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, expressed reservations. And members of the House, in turn, were quick to reject a gun ownership bill, which would have allowed courts to order the removal of firearms from certain people at risk of shooting themselves or others. That bill was a priority for Hughes.

But Warner said the commission’s work has already borne fruit. After a discussion about allowing schools to hire social workers with SITLA funding — a supplemental revenue source supported by the state’s trust lands — Warner and her colleagues on the Utah Board of Education voted to enact that policy through board rules.

“That was one fix that we already did,” Warner said. “I hope people know that we already have done that one fix.”

Other commission discussions have looked at installing panic alarms in schools — similar to the systems used in banks — to commissioning public service announcements on the secure storage of firearms, or funding threat-assessment training for teachers and administrators, Warner said.

“Schools need to know what to do with these kids with family violence, with problems going on in the home, with depression,” Warner said. “The safety commission is looking at all of that.”

Other commission members contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune declined to comment on the record but expressed optimism that consensus on some policy recommendations could be reached.

The commission’s final meeting is scheduled for June 7, Warner said. Members may choose to hold additional meetings, but Warner said there is a sense of urgency — heightened by last week’s tragedy in Santa Fe, Texas where a teen killed 10 — to arrive at recommendations.

“We need to bring these ideas forward,” she said, “and start working on them.”

Ward said the commission may appear to be moving slowly in the light of another mass shooting at a U.S. high school, but the panel is progressing along the schedule it set for itself.

“We are hoping, and expecting, to have our report at least by the first or second week of June,” Ward said. “Everybody, appropriately, is wanting something sooner rather than later.”

Ward also said the decision to hold closed meetings is reflective of how the group was formed. Unlike many state task forces and commissions, the school safety group was created on a volunteer basis outside of any formal action by the Legislature.

“We’re just a group of interested people meeting together,” Ward said. “Because of that, these aren’t open meetings.”

When the commission was announced, House leaders suggested the panel’s work could compel a special session of the Legislature to enact changes before a new school year begins this fall.

Paul Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said in a statement that his boss will prioritize the commission’s recommendations as soon as they come forward.

“In the meantime, our administration continues to work with superintendents around the state to meet the unique needs that they have identified for improved facilities, increased support for student mental health, additional training, and — where asked for — additional school resource officers,” Edwards said.

He also emphasized the need for Utah’s parents and students to use the state’s SafeUT app, which connects users with mental health services and provides an anonymous platform to report threats to school and personal safety.

“In the wake of [last week’s] tragic events, we once again encourage all families to download and use of the SafeUT app, which connects students with crisis response specialists,” Edwards said. “And we encourage all gun owners to be vigilant in securing their firearms.”

Herbert has expressed some support for strengthening background checks and raising the minimum age for gun purchases, as well as imposing limits on magazine capacity. And other Utahns have stressed the need for updated building plans that limit school access to a single point of entry.

In addition to Warner, the safety commission includes Clark Aposhian, a gun rights advocate and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council; Dallas Earnshaw, superintendent of the Utah State Hospital; Brigham Young University sociology professor John Hoffmann; Keith Squires, commissioner for the Utah Department of Public Safety; Ron Gordon, general counsel for Herbert; Bryan Turner, an architect with Davis School District; and Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews.