Utah lawmakers face a $100M price tag for school safety proposals

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, facilitator of the Utah Safe Schools Commission said the top priority is for students to have access to a "quick, available, well-trained mental health team" to assess and address mental health problems, in addition to "extreme risk" protective orders and background checks reported to the federal database, Wednesday, June 20, 2018 during a press conference at the Utah Capitol.

A list of recommendations aimed at improving school safety in Utah, including on-campus mental-health professionals and the retrofitting of aging buildings to restrict access, could cost the state nearly $100 million in its first year, according to numbers provided to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The recommendations, similar to the recent findings of the Utah School Safety Commission, were presented to members of the Education Interim Committee by State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson and Christy Walker, a safety specialist with the Utah Board of Education.

“There’s been a lot of mental-health concerns growing in our communities and our schools,” Walker said.

Lawmakers were pitched on the idea of providing funding to create threat assessment and student support teams at Utah’s public schools, and a coordinating school safety center at the Utah Board of Education.

But significant cost estimates came in the form of $30 million annually to hire or contract with mental-health professionals for on-site work with students, and $65 million to create single points of entry and add other security measures at the state’s existing schools.

After the first year, the retrofitting costs could be reduced to $33 million to maintain and upgrade surveillance technology and security software, Dickson said.

During the presentation, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, emphasized that the state’s priority should be the physical safety of students, rather than emotional well-being.

Both approaches are “critical," he said, but schools already sponsor clubs aimed at inclusion and an employee hired to assess threats should not be involved in advising things like LGBT support groups.

“I would want to make certain that we don’t have a position that forgets that they’re there to keep kids from getting shot and physically harmed,” Hutchings said, “and instead focuses on positive affirmations.”

The committee did not take a vote on any of the proposals Wednesday. And additional legislation aimed at gun ownership and the seizure of weapons through court order is anticipated in the upcoming legislative session.

Dickson said a school safety advisory committee — composed of representatives from the Utah Board of Education, Department of Public Safety, Division of Human Services and other education and government entities — would continue to meet quarterly to evaluate initiatives.

“It’s not just about meeting a few times and coming up with recommendations,” she said. “It’s really about ongoing coordination.”

And Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who facilitated the meetings of the Utah School Safety Commission, said he plans to sponsor legislation based on Dickson’s presentation.

“I will be bringing back to you a bill that reflects, in large part, many of these priorities you have heard,” he said.