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Here’s what Utah parents need to know about school safety after the deadly shooting in Texas

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Francisco Kjolseth
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The Salt Lake Tribune
Ensign Elementary in Salt Lake City has implemented security measures to improve school safety, including a doorbell with camera that alerts the front desk to gain access to the building. But such efforts haven't received the level of funding that one lawmaker said was needed.

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After 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Utah Republican lawmaker Ray Ward called for a historic investment of nearly $100 million to make Utah schools safer.

His bill received just 1% of that amount, or $1 million total, from the 2019 Utah Legislature.

And in the years since then — and 119 school shootings across the country later, including Tuesday at a Texas elementary school where 21 died — the initiatives that Ward called for have never been fully funded by the state.

The Bountiful lawmaker said at the time that the Parkland murders should prompt Utah to hire more campus police officers, retrofit old schools to be more secure, and add more locks, better cameras, bigger fences — and more counselors.

But the conversation fizzled and nothing was changed on a large scale.

Now there is another school shooting in the headlines. Will the same happen again? Or will it prompt lawmakers to more fully back efforts to protect students?

Here is how prepared Utah is, with the the few things that lawmakers have approved and what schools are doing to improve safety.

What does Utah law require of schools to keep students safe from a possible shooter?

There is no state law around limiting or locking school “access points,” said Rhett Larsen, student and school safety specialist for the Utah State Board of Education.

Access points are places where people can enter a school, including doors and windows. And that’s typically considered the place to start for school safety.

Some schools in the state, for instance, lock all doors and have doorbells and video cameras at entrances. They funnel visitors there for screening before they can come inside.

But, Larsen said, those are not required. State law, he noted, doesn’t really have much that schools are mandated to do for safety.

There are some rules, though, from the Utah State Board of Education, which oversees public K-12 schools here, that districts and charters must follow. The main one is that each school must have an emergency preparedness plan for how it would respond to a shooter, including protecting kids and reuniting them with family afterward.

Those have to be created in coordination with local fire and law enforcement officials, Larsen noted.

Additionally, it is required that schools create a threat assessment team made up of individuals from multiple disciplines, including police and mental health counselors, to regularly review possible threats.

What about shooter drills? Do schools have to hold those?

Yes. Under a rule from the Utah State Board of Education, schools must hold drills to teach students how to respond to the threat of a shooter.

Elementary schools are required to conduct a fire drill within the first 10 days of the start a new academic year, and then hold one every month after. On alternating months, they are supposed to hold other types of drills, including for: sheltering in place, earthquakes, lockdowns for violence, bomb threats and others.

It is not specified how many lockdowns for violence — what some refer to as an active shooter drill — must be held. But a school district is supposed to work those into the schedule.

In middle schools, junior highs and high schools, there must be an emergency evacuation fire drill held every two months, for a total of four a year. But state law permits that the second and fourth drills “may be substituted” with a safety drill for sheltering in place, earthquake or lockdowns for violence. Again, how many lockdowns is not specified.

Larsen said schools are encouraged to hold these shooter drills so students can be prepared. ”We cannot do what we don’t practice,” he said.

But he also acknowledged they can be traumatic, especially for younger kids. He said schools are told not to create or add any drama to the drills, such as having someone dress up as a shooter and walk around the school (which Larsen said has happened in other states). Administrators are not supposed to make any sort of scenario, but instead just focus on the proper procedure.

Larsen said the timing of the drills can be tricky, so the Utah State Board of Education is working on an infographic for districts and charters to explain the different types and when they need to practice them.

What improvements have lawmakers funded since Parkland?

In 2018, when Ward first suggested his bill, it was put on hold. Then it was gutted of funding. Then it was delayed by a committee. “There was an outcry to do whatever we could do to make our schools a safe place for students,” Ward pleaded at the time.

On Wednesday, Ward’s reaction sounded similar. “The horrible shooting in Texas gets our attention, and we worry so much about something like that occurring in our state,” he said.

Ward’s pared-down bill did help fund a new Student Safety Center under the Utah State Board of Education. That group meets to come up with recommendations for school safety.

The lawmaker says he believes that effort is going well. And he would like to see what ideas have come out of that before putting more money into school safety.

“It’s not easy to understand what to put money toward that might help this,” he said. “We need to know what works, what makes it better, what makes the risk less.”

Some money went to a different bill that ended up funding school counselors.

When asked if enough money was going to this effort, Larsen said he appreciates what has been spent but said it could be helpful to reassess what’s needed. He said school districts are largely left to figure out funding for themselves, without state support.

Where can schools get help?

Five Utah school districts have received grants, up to $31,250, to fund safety improvements through the Student Safety Center.

Those schools are: Frontier Middle School in Alpine School District, Mountain Crest High in Cache County School District, Union Middle in Canyons School District, Northridge High in Davis School District and North Sanpete High in North Sanpete School District.

Union Middle School is in the process of being rebuilt, so Canyons spokesperson Jeff Haney said he believes the grant money will go towards the new construction and making the new building safe for students.

Construction at the district’s Mount Jordan Middle School, for instance, recently finished, and the school was designed with a line of sight so that you can see the entire length of the school for safety reasons.

North Sanpete School District is using the funding to provide staff additional training from The “I Love U Guys” Foundation, named for the last text Ellen and John-Michael Keyes’ daughter, Emily, sent her parents before she was killed in a 2006 school shooting.

Superintendent Nan Ault, whose district is nestled among the mountains of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, said the school regularly has active shooter drills, but she is wondered how she would get students from a school to somewhere safe if there was snow on the roads.

Ault said staffers will go through what’s called “reunification” trainings this summer to practice how they would evacuate a school, if necessary, and get students back to their parents. It also teaches staff ways to keep children and parents calm. The idea, according to the foundation, is that a orderly, predetermined process can reduce the stress during an already chaotic and likely tragic scenario.

“It’s not perfect, I have to tell you,” Ault said. “There’s always something that needs to be updated or addressed or practiced. And we’re trying. … We’re going to try everything we can.”

She said she hopes the shooting in Texas shows state officials that Utah school districts need more funding for safety resources, like these trainings or an increased police presence.

Larsen said not as many Utah schools applied for the state-funded grant as hoped. The center is now looking at how to expand the grant and maximize the funding so all schools and districts can receive help.

Additionally, three Utah school districts — Provo, Nebo and Ogden — all received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020 to improve school safety. That could be spent on training for local law enforcement officers, metal detectors, locks and lighting.

Tooele School District showed off its school safety features at Rose Springs Elementary School in August 2018, including steel doors that snapped shut and blocked off classrooms with the push of a button.

It was heralded by then-Gov. Gary Herbert. But the district noted that it cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, with most of the work done pro bono by four local companies.

The state did not try to replicate that in other schools.

How often are students bringing weapons to school?

The Utah State Board of Education does track these numbers.

For last school year, starting in fall 2020 and ending in spring 2021, there were 617 weapon infractions reported. The majority of those — 266 — were a knife or sharp object.

That’s a slight decline from the 2019-2020 year, where there were 679 total. Both years were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited in-person learning.

The numbers before that were higher. In 2018-2019, there were 849 weapons reported in Utah public schools. In 2017-2018, there were 753.

Look-alike weapons and items that were reported but didn’t turn out to be a weapon are the next most common categories after knives. Guns and explosive devices are among the least likely.

In the 2019-2020 school year, there 16 handguns or shotguns reported and 12 explosive devices. The year before that, there were 18 guns and 18 explosive devices, according to the state’s numbers.

“One is too many,” Larsen said. “Any weapon is alarming. Any threat of violence is alarming.”

The state also tracks what reported violent infractions occur in schools. The vast majority for every year are listed as “fighting,” with about 5,000 incidents of that reported each year, followed by physical assault and harassment.

Larsen said it’s important for schools and the state to continually watch these numbers and assess what can be done to respond.

What should schools be looking at?

Violence is obviously a red flag, Larsen said. But there is not an easy answer for what might prompt someone to violence or what might precede it.

He advises school administrators against thinking about school shootings as just a problem of guns or of mental health. “It’s a human problem,” he said, “and human problems are complex.”

He said school officials and parents should be mindful of all sorts of avenues that are affecting kids, from bullying to depression to academic failure. Parents should be encouraged to openly talk to their kids, too, about any struggles.

The threat assessment teams are helpful in this, too. Larsen said they can actively look for patterns and gaps and intervene when needed.

What about training? Are teachers and principals being instructed on what to do?

Larsen said the state school board does provide training for school districts and charters on how to deal with the threat of a shooter in the classroom.

They annually bring in a national expert — Dewey Cornell, who created the most widely used manual for school threat assessment — to speak to teachers and administrators. The state board has also given its official approval to his manual and provides copies for schools to read.

Where can students report issues?

Students are encouraged to use the SafeUT app.

The app, run by the state, allows students to anonymously chat with crisis counselors or report threats at their school.

Larsen said this is crucial because students are on the ground and may see or hear of a threat before an administrator. He said with most school threats, another person knows about it before it happens.

The app has already been credited with stopping some plans in schools this past year. That includes a bombing threat at Weber High School, which someone reported through SafeUT.

Larsen said data typically shows “our schools are generally safe places.” The app, he said, helps.

Last school year, from 2020-21, students reported 256 threats on the app, according to a report. Of those, 19 concerned a reported school attack.

Where can parents learn more about safety plans at their kid’s school?

Larsen said any parent who wants to know more about what their kid’s school is doing about safety should just ask. All schools are supposed to have safety plans and provide those to anyone interested in learning more.

Larsen, who is a parent and whose wife is an educator, said school shootings can cause people to pause and reflect. Parents, administrators, teachers and politicians should think about what can done to improve, he said.

“Everything thinks: Is our school safe?” he said. “Is my kid safe to go to school?”

—Tribune reporters Paighten Harkins and Chris Samuels contributed to this report.

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