House bill that would bolster school safety stalls in deadlocked Senate committee — for now

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ensign Elementary in Salt Lake City has implemented new security measures to improve school safety, including a doorbell with camera that alerts the front desk to gain access to the building. This photo is dated Aug. 4, 2018.

One of the most anticipated school safety bills proposed this year — spurred by the deadly shooting at a Florida high school — has stalled in committee, with lawmakers questioning how it would stop an attack, why it doesn’t do more to improve the physical security of buildings and if it’s really necessary in Utah.

The mild measure, which would require schools to provide more lockdown trainings and create staff teams to respond to threats, has already passed in the House. But members of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday stopped the bill from advancing by a 3-3 tie vote. Those opposed, including several members of the public, suggested it would create more security problems than it would fix.

“I have some serious concerns about this,” said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, who chairs the committee and voted against HB120.

The bill, now in its fourth iteration, has changed dramatically since Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, initially drafted it. The first version was based on recommendations from the state’s ad hoc School Safety Commission, formed after the Florida attack in February 2018. It asked for $30 million for school districts to hire more campus police officers and counselors and $60 million for structural improvements, including more locks, better cameras and bigger fences around schoolyards.

Nearly all of that money was stripped from the measure and allocated to other bills.

“There was an outcry to do whatever we could do to make our schools a safe place for students,” said Ward, but the bill was pulled last year “for thought and evaluation,” gutted of funding this year despite being recommended by the governor and now held up in committee because it doesn’t do enough. “We need to prevent a violent act or catastrophe," he pleaded.

Ward reframed the bill to what he thought could still be accomplished: Having the state hire a public safety liaison to work with principals on safety plans; requiring districts to provide more training and hold more emergency drills; directing the Utah Board of Education to collect students’ opinions about their school environment through surveys; and creating teams at each school that would determine when a kid might be a threat to peers and would report it to police.

It’s the last two that have caused the most disagreement.

“This bill should be called ‘The Minority Report,’” said parent Natalie Cline, who spoke at the committee meeting Tuesday and referred to the 2002 film. “We have some concerns that it collects personally identifiable social and emotional data on students on a state level.”

She feels the requirement for the state to collect data through surveys — and the permission to share it with law enforcement, if needed — disregards privacy and punishes kids on predicted behavior rather than actual behavior. (In the Tom Cruise movie, people were arrested before they committed crimes.)

Additionally, Andrew Riggle, a public policy advocate for the Disability Law Center, believes staff teams assessing when a kid might be a threat will lead to profiling. Students with disabilities, he said, could be targeted for acting different. There should be at least one person with a background in special education helping with the assessments, Riggle suggested, and specific descriptions of what is considered a threat and how it should be dealt with.

Students of color or other minority groups might also be unfairly picked out, added Anna Thomas with Voices for Utah Children. “We worry kids that are already part of marginalized groups will be labeled by their teachers and peers as a threat.”

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said he didn’t think the teams would be effective. Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, asked why there wasn’t more emphasis on building security. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, questioned whether the bill could get by with even less funding than the $1 million it’s been left.

Still, the proposal had support from the Utah PTA, the governor’s office and the Utah Board of Education.

“There are many things to like in this bill,” said board member Carol Barlow Lear. “It’s something that’s needed.”

She defended school data, saying it is kept secure. And Justin Chapman, a captain at the Sandy Police Department, said the team model is helpful for identifying threats that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“We can work together, and we have to work together.”

Though the bill failed in committee, Ward can make changes and bring it back for another hearing. It is currently scheduled again for 8 a.m. before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.