All Utah schools could be required to have at least one armed officer or volunteer “guardian” on campus during active hours, according to recently floated draft changes to Utah’s school security laws.
The proposed amendments, which passed 11-1 in the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Nov. 15, were inspired by state lawmakers’ previous visits to school shooting sites — including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members were fatally shot on Valentine’s Day 2018.
“Members of the staff and the [School Security Task Force] have traveled pretty extensively to Texas, to Tennessee, to Florida a couple times to make sure that we understood the aftermath and what was happening in those communities,” said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, who serves as chair of the task force. “This is a multifaceted problem, there’s not a single solution.”
The armed people proposed in the draft legislation could include school resource officers; school safety and security officers; volunteer “guardians;” and contracted security guards. Such personnel would undergo mandatory training with school administrators twice a year on all “safety and security infrastructure” of each school where they are stationed.
The draft proposal follows Florida’s Guardian Program, which was established through the 2018 passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The Florida Legislature this year expanded the program to allow private schools to participate.
Armed personnel include volunteer school employees
While school resource officers are already allowed in schools, the other three armed officer or “guardian” options would be newly allowed under the draft legislation.
The proposal defines “school safety and security officers” as law enforcement officers hired by a school and employed as school or school district employees who don’t simultaneously work for a law enforcement agency.
As written, requirements for these officers would include being trained and certified under the Peace Officer Standards and Training Act and completing “required checks for law enforcement transferring from one agency to another.”
“School guardians” would entail a volunteer school employee who “participates in required training.” They cannot be principals, teachers, or others who primarily work with students, but they would have to be existing staff, Wilcox said, as “you’re not asking them to add staff.”
Such volunteers would need to have a valid concealed carry permit, and go through annual, four-hour firearms training with their county’s security chief. Utah law currently allows individuals to carry concealed firearms into public schools so long as they have a concealed firearm permit. This year, lawmakers waived concealed carry permit fees for school employees.
“Guardian” volunteers would also need to go through initial firearm and de-escalation training from their county’s security chief, as well as training on basic first aid and coordinating with law enforcement. This training, Wilcox said, would total 84 hours and matches that given to law enforcement officers.
“The guardian program is also fun, because they’re there all the time,” Wilcox said. “The whole intent of this piece is to make sure that if somebody decides to threaten [a] Utah school, there’s any number of folks that are prepared to make sure that they aren’t able to hurt anybody.”
During public comment on the draft legislation, a West Jordan High School student asked Wilcox whether guardians would be trained in responding to psychological and mental health issues, to which Wilcox responded the required de-escalation training would include.
Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe expressed concern regarding what could happen if there’s a problem with a guardian, or if they act “inappropriately” during a situation.
Guardians would only be activated “in the event of a serious threat,” Wilcox said. If they act outside of their training, they would be “held accountable just like anybody else.”
As for contracted security guards, they must also have a concealed carry permit; training from their county’s security chief; and a contract with a detailed job description and information on the rights of students under state and federal law “regarding information privacy, searches, questioning, and arrests.”
Proposed changes could affect school construction design
Also included in the draft amendments were potential requirements for new school construction and reconstruction projects to include certain “safety and security standards.”
The standards would include two-way intercom systems and panic buttons in each classroom, video surveillance, limited secure entries, ballistic glass or security film on all interior and ground-floor windows, and periodic facility assessments.
Clark Aposhian, of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said during public comment that the draft legislation “addresses the failures” in school security.
“You cannot make up for the lack of effective response,” Aposhian said.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was the lone committee member who opposed the draft legislation. She expressed concerns about “the route we’re going with school safety.”
“I personally have concerns with having security guards in our schools and making our schools more — from my perception — like prisons, because somebody has access to a gun,” Romero said.
She acknowledged the School Security Task Force’s work, but she noted how the company supplying weapons detectors to Salt Lake City School District high schools, Evolv Technology, is currently under federal investigation, as Reuters has reported.
Citing the investigation, Romero asked what “parameters we’re going to put when we’re investing all this money into supposedly protecting our students,” especially as schools spend “thousands and thousands of dollars” on “smart design.”
Wilcox said weapons and metal detectors are not part of the draft legislation, which aims to set a “basic minimum standard for smart design.”
“We’re really talking about that gap time between when somebody decides to do this thing, and how quickly, how much we can slow them down until we can get the cavalry there,” he said.
The draft legislation included several other amendments, including requiring “local education agencies,” such as a school district, to have an early warning system — for identifying students in need of academic or behavioral help — that includes school safety violations.
While she supported the draft legislation, Riebe said she hopes legislators can address equity issues when it comes to school guardians in, for example, low-income schools.
”I’m wondering how we can address some of those inequities of families that just don’t feel part of that community and don’t feel safety in the school to join, by getting trained by the school,” she said.
The draft amendments will be discussed further once next year’s legislative session begins in January.