It was early Tuesday morning, Jan. 23, 2018. Near Benton, Ky., students were gathering for another day of classes at Marshall County High School.
But instead of calculus and English, history and biology, students found themselves learning the harsh realities of life and death. A 15-year-old boy allegedly drew a handgun and opened fire on his classmates, killing two and injuring more than a dozen others.
“For the most part school is looked at as a safe haven," says Marshall County Superintendent Trent Lovett. “I felt like we were as safe as any school district in America. And then it happened here.”
The massacre sent shockwaves through the commonwealth, especially in Frankfort, where lawmakers spent the following days offering ideas for making Kentucky schools safer, from hiring more school resource officers to arming specially trained teachers.
Instead of rushing legislation through the 2018 General Assembly, lawmakers decided to form a bipartisan School Safety Working Group to study the issue in depth, and then propose legislation in the 2019 session. The results of their efforts are embodied in Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1, wide-ranging school safety measures that have already gained substantial support on both sides of the political aisle.
KET convened a special forum to discuss school safety and the legislation that lawmakers have proposed. The guests included state Sen. Max Wise and Rep. John Bam Carney as well as educators, students, law enforcement personnel, and counselors.
Marshall County High School football player Devon Evans will carry the memories of the shooting with him for the rest of his life. His left shoulder bears the scar from a bullet wound he sustained that January morning. Around the scar, Evans got a tattoo that commemorates the two friends he lost in the shooting: Bailey Holt and Preston Cope.
“It’s definitely hard to know that Bailey and Preston aren’t here today – they were the two nicest people you’d ever run into,” says Evans. “But it’s happened, and you’ve got to show everybody that, no matter what happens, you can always move on and show that life always goes on.”
In the wake of the shooting, Marshall County administrators installed metal detectors and security cameras, limited access points to the school, banned backpacks, and hired four additional school resources officers (SROs).
“They can't just be a person in a uniform, that’s standing with their arms crossed and not communicating,” says Lovett of the SROs. “They have to be able to relate to our students, and the resource officers that we selected are phenomenal.”
The high school also added two mental health counselors as part of the effort to help students feel physically and psychologically safe
“It's important we let them know they matter to us," says Marshall County High School Principal Patricia Greer. "We communicate that and give them different options of coping skills and different people they can talk to."
Like the physical scar on Devon Evans’ shoulder, the emotional scars from the shooting remain with the student body as well.
"It's something we're going to live with forever," says MCHS senior Kat Howard. "We'll never be completely over it, but each day gets better."
Lawmakers Propose School Safety Measures
In the months after the Marshall County shooting, the 16-member School Safety Working Group travelled the state to gather public input on how to best make Kentucky's classrooms more secure. The recommendations they heard echo the general philosophy implemented in Marshall County: harden campus security while softening the personal relationships among staff and students.
Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1 seek to achieve both of those goals. The measures call for more mental health professionals in schools and for more thorough training of resource officers who provide security on school campuses. Senate Education Committee Chair Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), who is a sponsor of SB 1, says the bill also provides accountability provisions for schools that don't meet building security standards and creates new state school security marshals to oversee the new measures.
"Senate Bill 1 is a comprehensive, proactive approach," Wise says. "It's not just about hardening schools… it's about connecting students with faculty and staff."
One thing the legislation does not include is a provision to arm teachers or other school personnel. That’s an idea that frequently comes up following school shootings.
“As we made our rounds through the state and talked with different professionals, there just wasn’t much support for that,” says House Majority Floor Leader and House Bill 1 sponsor John Bam Carney (R-Campbellsville).
Also missing from the legislation: a funding mechanism to help schools pay for new staff and increased training and security measures. Carney says lawmakers will likely add some funding in the 2020-2022 state budget. Until then, he says school districts will have to get creative. Wise says the legislation does allow districts to form separate nonprofit entities that can fundraise within their communities to help local schools pay for the new security and personnel mandates.
The good news is that federal Medicaid dollars can also go towards paying mental health professionals in schools. Mahak Kalra of Kentucky Youth Advocates says Medicaid will pay 70 percent, while the state will need to put up the rest.
“The great thing about this is, that 30 percent match the state will have to pay for can be used with existing local health expenditures,” says Kalra. “So there's no additional money that is needed from our state budget.”
Kalra says the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services plans to implement the Medicaid match in the 2019-2020 school year. But that still leaves school systems scrambling for money for SROs and other safety measures. Marshall County Superintendent Trent Lovett says many schools may face some tough personnel decisions because of limited budgets.
“We're in the education business,” says Lovett. “We want to be safe, but our number-one goal is education of our students, so it's a difficult call for school districts to make in choosing between a resource officer and a teacher.”
The Role of School Resource Officers
Although both HB 1 and SB 1 have garnered bipartisan praise and support, some fear that increasing the number of SROs may lead to a "militarization" of schools. There's also a concern that SROs may evolve from offering security to enforcing discipline. But Chris Barrier, president of the Kentucky Association of School Resource Officers, says that's not the purpose of SROs.
“A school resource officer is a trained, certified, properly selected law enforcement officer placed in the school to have long-term meaningful relationships with kids,” says Barrier. “He's a mentor, he’s a teacher, and just a very small piece of what we do is the law enforcement component.”
The legislation calls for tripling the number of training hours required for SROs from 40 to 120. SROs will learn about mental health concerns, diversity issues surrounding race and sexual identity, dealing with special needs students, and trauma-informed responses that can help troubled children.
Last year there were 173 SROs working in Kentucky schools, according to Barrier. Now there are more than 400. He says only 12 counties don't have the officers at this point.
Wise says SROs ideally would be in all schools, from elementary to high schools. He says younger children exposed to the officers can benefit from having a mentor relationship with an SRO. But the senator acknowledges that also takes money that the state can't afford to provide.
“Tennessee is putting $40 million in their SRO program," says Wise. "We don't have the revenue to do that. We would like to get there, definitely."
Addressing Mental Health Needs
Senate Bill 1, which unanimously passed the full Senate on Feb. 8, requires schools to have one counselor for every 250 students. Dr. Joe Bargione, a retired school psychologist from Jefferson County Public Schools, says attending to the mental health needs of students is a critical part of the proposed legislation.
“What we need to do as a state is really balance what we call the physical safety – the hardening of the school – along with the psychological safety of the young person,” says Bargione. “They need to feel that they’re part of that school community, that they do have resources available to them.”
Dan Orman, training coordinator for the Kentucky Center for School Safety, agrees. He says schools can always install more locks, metal detectors and alarms, but those security features won’t be as effective without good mental health supports and strong student-adult relationships.
“When kids are not emotionally safe, they're not physically safe,” Orman says, “and we have to have that piece first.”
Fostering good mental health in students will take more than additional counselors, though. Schools across the commonwealth are implementing innovative programs to engage teachers, staff, and students in efforts to promote better relationships in schools.
Pulaski County Schools has a program called Positive Behavior, Interventions, and Supports that works to affirm every student and encourages them to be responsible and respectful to everyone.
“We want to create climates and culture in our schools that facilitates a sense of psychological safety so that we’re able to relax and learn," says coordinator Dusty Phelps. “Learning almost exclusively happens through relationships, it's not just about information sharing.”
Younger students are rewarded for positive behavior with activities like free time with technology, or costume dress-up days. Older students help mentor younger students, and adults in the school check in with students at least once a day to monitor their progress on specific goals. All school staff members receive comprehensive training on youth mental health first aid, and off-site counseling services are also available for students who need it.
“As we have trained our staff to recognize and be able to respond, I think it has increased the willingness for teachers to seek out youth and encourage them to get help,” says Lori Price, coordinator of student and family support services at the Pulaski County School District.
Programs like the one in Pulaski County not only address the behavior of students, but also serve to make the overall environment of schools healthier and more productive.
“The number one protective factor for our kids is a students' sense of belonging, and that’s closely correlated with a positive relationship with an adult,” says Rep. Lisa Willner (D-Louisville) who is also executive director of the Kentucky Psychology Association.
Another initiative that's available in several districts around the commonwealth is called Sources of Strength. It engages both students and school faculty and staff to prevent bullying, substance abuse, and suicide.
"Sources of Strength is a totally amazing program," says health teacher Mary Wurst of Butler Traditional High School in Louisville. “The kids... are the eyes and ears of the building. They’re the support systems. If they see a student going through something, they are the ones that reach out and personally try to help them. If they think it’s something above what they can handle or if it's life threatening, they bring those students to either myself or one of our other adult mentors in the building.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a fifth of all young people are likely to have a mental health issue. Retired school physiologist Joe Bargione says that means about 130,000 Kentucky children may face a mental health challenge during their academic career. That puts a tremendous burden on schools that are already strapped for money and resources.
“I think it’s really a top-down approach,” says Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Pat Richardson. “You have to have leadership that identifies the problem and a board of education that will embrace the idea that we have to spend some money in this area.”
“At the end of the day, caring for each and every child that comes to school... educating them and making sure that they are safe and secure in our schools, it is all one massive task that takes everyone's support,” says Eric Kennedy of the Kentucky School Board Association.
Broader Issues of Gun Violence
As important as the proposed legislation is, students still only spend about a third of their day at school. What about the factors that may have them feeling unsafe once they head back home?
“We have to deal with those community violence... issues in tandem with what occurs in schools,” says Emmy Sippy, a student at Lexington's Henry Clay High School. “When students are in school, if we’re protecting them from guns there, when they get off the bus, they should also be protected from guns.”
Lawmakers Wise and Carney say gun control is, for now, a separate conversation. In this legislation, they say they want to remain focused on the greater goal of improving safety and security within school buildings.
“Many times on wedge issues that we look at, it can be very difficult to try to get everybody to come together,” says Wise. “This is the best attempt that we could make to try and come together with a comprehensive bill.”
“There’s no perfect bill or piece of legislation, adds Carney. “Legislation is not going to solve this issue. This is an issue that’s obviously going to take relationship building and so many things, but I think this framework starts us down that right path.”