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With vouchers and pay out of the way, Utah lawmakers turn to school safety

Looking south in the rotunda at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Jan. 17, 2023.
Briana Scroggins
special to KUER
Looking south in the rotunda at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Jan. 17, 2023.

School safety will be debated by Utah lawmakers during this legislative session.

Some of the bills put forth would require schools to regularly practice active threat drills, increase communication with law enforcement agencies and create new policies for school resource officers.

The Legislature’s focus on safety follows its swift work at the beginning of the session passing legislation that tied the governor’s request for an increase in teacher pay with a long-pursued school voucher system. Other education priorities in 2023 include a push for teen centers to assist at-risk youth and policies dealing with transgender students.

Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox said lawmakers have heard from constituents, both inside and outside of the school system, in the wake of mass shootings around the country.

Wilcox’s proposal, HB61, would create a state security chief within Utah’s Department of Public Safety. This person would be responsible for enforcing safety rules and ensuring that any new school has the proper security features.

The bill would also require each county sheriff’s office to have an employee that works with the state security chief. Wilcox hopes this would raise the minimum standard for safety at schools statewide.

“One of the things that we discovered going through this process is that we have dramatically unequal levels of distribution of security and response throughout the state of Utah.”

Wilcox’s bill would also create a “School Security Task Force” to flesh out the responsibilities of the state security chief and create minimum safety and design standards for schools.

The bill originally required each secondary school to have a resource officer, but Wilcox offered a substitution to remove the requirement. The substitute bill, which passed unanimously out of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday, would also create state grants that districts can apply for to pay for safety services or materials, like school resource officers or first-aid kits.

Republican Rep. Dan Johnson is sponsoring a bill that would require schools to practice active threat drills, often referred to as lockdown drills. Utah schools are currently required to practice safety drills but they do not have to conduct lockdown drills. The bill also requires these drills be taught to students in developmentally appropriate ways.

“The idea that how you teach a 5- or 6-year-old how to be safe in that setting is much different than, say, how you use language with a senior in high school,” Johnson said.

There are also bills that would increase communication between schools, law enforcement and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Republican Rep. Cheryl Acton’s HB60, requires l employees to report to their principal whenever they find out that a student has a “dangerous weapon” on school grounds. The principal then has to report that to law enforcement and the school district. The Utah State Board of Education would also have to report the number of students who bring a weapon to school to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

With HB304, Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee wants to give school resource officers more power to refer a student to a court or law enforcement for violent or weapons offenses, as well as other offenses. Currently, a school can not report a student if the student is alleged to have committed a class C misdemeanor, an infraction or a status offense.

“Right now we are seeing juveniles purposefully go to school grounds to commit crimes and commit them in front of a security officer without any consequences,” Lisonbee said. “We need to help our kids understand that they need to obey the law on or off school grounds.”

Another bill from Lisonbee, HB107, would waive the concealed carry permit fee for school employees. She said teachers who are carrying guns on school grounds have told her they “feel that they are trained and ready to help in a school shooter situation to defend their students and themselves.”

There is no evidence to back up the idea that arming teachers would increase school safety, according to a 2020 analysis by the RAND Corporation, and some experts believe it is a bad idea.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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