House Republicans spotlighted a raft of bills they say will improve safety in Utah’s schools on Thursday.
Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, pointed to school shootings, like the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead, as the genesis for the more than half-dozen pieces of legislation.
“In the wake of these tragedies, we’ve all received communications from our constituents inside and outside the school system. For the last ten months, we’ve been working together on different aspects of what school safety should look like, where we may have liabilities in our system and our approach,” Wilcox says.
Wilcox’s HB61 creates a new position within the Department of Public Safety that will ensure proper security elements are implemented at every new school built in the state. The bill also requires every state high school to hire a school resource officer.
“This will help us to raise that minimum standard across the state, to ensure that the secure and safe school that a kid happens to be attending isn’t dependent upon where he or she lives,” Wilcox said
Lawmakers expect it will cost Utah’s more than 300 secondary schools upwards of $15 million to hire a resource officer.
Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, has a pair of bills addressing school safety this year. HB140 requires school children to go through “developmentally appropriate” monthly drills to practice responding to an active threat in schools.
“Whenever we have to face the situation where the active threat is an active shooter, we have to be really, really careful about using those kinds of words around young children. I want to make sure that when we require training for a child in kindergarten or first grade, we use developmentally appropriate language around those children,” Johnson said.
During Thursday’s House Law Enforcement Committee hearing on Johnson’s bill, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, reluctantly supported Johnson’s proposal.
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“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this bill makes me sad, so sad that we have gotten to the point in our world where we require monthly shooting drills for our babies. It just breaks my heart,” Hollins said.
Wilcox, the committee chair, pushed back on Hollins’ characterization of Johnson’s bill.
“That’s not the language of the bill. It doesn’t say that. We’re talking about active threat drills,” Wilcox said.
Johnson also said he has a yet-to-be-unveiled bill to reduce high absenteeism rates in Utah’s schools.
House Majority Assistant Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, is behind HB304, which allows school resource officers to address illegal conduct on school grounds, something she says is not happening currently.
“We’re seeing juveniles purposefully go to school grounds to commit crimes, and commit them in front of a security officer without any consequences. Those security officers are not empowered to intervene,” Lisonbee said.
Some of the bills under the “school safety” umbrella take a more indirect approach, like giving tools to parents or gathering data.
Johnson also said he has a yet-to-be-unveiled bill that aims to reduce high absenteeism rates in Utah’s schools.
HB60 from Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, requires schools to report incidents involving weapons on school grounds to law enforcement and the school district so they can compile statistics on the scope of the problem.
Rep. Karen Peterson, R-Clinton, wants to use technology to give parents more access to information about their students. HB249 creates an online portal that will include information and resources when their students have been bullied or the target of other abusive behavior.
One bill not highlighted on Thursday was Lisonbee’s HB107 which waives the fee for school employees who want to get a concealed weapons permit.
“I’ve heard from many teachers who are carrying on school grounds who feel they are trained and ready to help in a school shooter situation to defend their students and themselves. I think this helps harden the target,” Lisonbee said.