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Ambitious Utah School Safety Bill Falls Short Of Lofty Goals

Photo of Ray Ward.
Cory Dinter for KUER
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, has been working on a school safety bill, the current version of which would fund a school safety program at the Utah State Board of Education.

The journey to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk has been long and difficult for Rep. Ray Ward’s student and school safety assessment bill.

The bill initially sought about $100 million, a third of which would have gone toward school personnel such as on-site mental health professionals, and two thirds to fund security needs at schools like locks and surveillance technology. But those components were stripped away from the bill’s final version after getting pushback in the Senate and from community advocates.

What remains is $780,000 to fund a school safety program at the Utah State Board of Education. The program would consist of a liaison from the Department of Public Safety and a mental health specialist aimed at helping schools create individualized safety plans.

“I feel like the bill is a good step forward and there are still things that need to be done,” said Ward, R-Bountiful.

On Wednesday, a sixth version of the bill was introduced that removed the development of a software tool so the state education board could track student safety incidents at school.

“I’m sad not to see a comprehensive approach to this crisis that we are facing at our schools,” Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said after the bill was further scaled back. “I appreciate the sponsor and I know how hard it is to get people to understand.”

Earlier versions of H.B. 120 also included the creation of threat assessment teams at each school. Those teams that would work with individuals who pose a threat of violence or harm to themselves, a student or school employees. The program is based on the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines developed by the University of Virginia.

However, community advocates, including Voices for Utah Children and the Disability Law Center, voiced concerns that the threat assessment teams could disproportionately perceive students with disabilities and students from minorities groups as threats.

Advocates say they are pleased that threat assessment teams were taken out of the bill, said Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst for Voices of Utah Children. Her organization has high hopes for the proposed safety program that remains.

“We are hopeful that with this program staffed up at the state office, that team will be able to give schools training and assist in developing individualized school safety plans that work for different schools,” Thomas said.

The $30 million requested earlier in Ward’s bill has been diverted to Rep. Steve Eliason’s bill, which would provide funding to hire more counselors and therapists for Utah schools.

Ward said he’s hopeful that Eliason’s bill, H.B. 373, gets the funding and passes through the Legislature to provide much-needed support to schools.

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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