Senate Bill 1, the "School Safety and Resiliency Act" was called the General Assembly's top priority for the 2019 session.

A response to last year's shooting at Marshall County High School, Senate Bill 1 was signed by the governor last week. It will create a state head of school safety and calls for more uniform training and preparedness. It also requires schools to regularly assess their facilities for security threats and provides teachers with training on how to recognize signs of trauma.

Owensboro-area school administrators said last week they found many things they agree with in Senate Bill 1, and it mirrors or emphasizes initiatives the school districts were doing already.

"Anytime legislators are looking to improve student safety, those are steps in the right direction," said Damon Fleming, director of student services for Daviess County Public Schools.

But school officials at DCPS, Owensboro Public Schools and districts in Hancock, McLean and Muhlenberg counties said an issue to be determined is how school districts will pay

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for provisions in the bill, such as increasing the number of guidance counselors and having at least one school resource officer at every school.

"I definitely think there are some good things in the bill," Hancock County Public Schools Superintendent Kyle Estes said. For example, he said the bill's focus on student mental health was important.

"I definitely think there are positives. Some of the concern is the unfunded mandates," he said.

Part of the bill focuses on state measures, such as requiring the Center for School Safety to present legislators with annual data on the number of school resource officers in schools. The center would also train and certify "school safety coordinators," who will be taught how to recognize and respond to threats, and evaluate buildings for risks.

The bill also authorizes the creation of a "state school security marshall," who will "enhance school safety by monitoring school safety and security initiatives, develop reasonable training and other guidelines, develop a school security risk assessment tool" and ensure schools annually review their facilities' security using the state's risk assessment tool. The marshall will be part of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and will provide data to the Center for School Safety.

On the local level, the bill asks districts to appoint a district safety coordinator who will oversee security assessment and response and the schools. Schools are also required to provide students with at least an hour of training every other year on how to recognize signs of mental illness, and an hour of annual active shooter response training.

The bill also sets a goal of having one counselor for every 250 students in a district by July 1, 2021, or "as funds and qualified personnel become available." Counselors, or a mental health provider like a school psychologist or social worker, would establish school "trauma-informed teams," who will be trained to identify students who have experienced trauma and work with those students so they can perform in school.

"The mental health piece is a really big part of it," said George Powell, director of student services for OPS. "I think there's a serious need, across the state and nationwide, for mental health professionals to be more involved in our schools.

"Any resource we can get on that end would be greatly needed," Powell said.

"I think a lot of the other things (in the bill) we already do," Powell said. For example, OPS staff have received training on how to respond to active shooter situations, and the district has already made security upgrades to the main entrances at schools. The bill requires schools to have electronic locking main doors, cameras and intercoms, and for all classrooms to have locks and be closed and locked, during class, by July 2022.

"We've been working for years to restrict access to all of our buildings, so you can't really go in or out one door," Powell said.

The bill says schools "shall cooperate to assign one or more certified school resource officers to each school within a school district, as funds and qualified personnel become available." The bill doesn't give a deadline for accomplishing that goal but requires superintendents to annually report the number of SROs in their district to the Center for School Safety.

Tommy Burrough, superintendent of McLean County Schools, said the district's school resource officers are deputies with the sheriff's department.

"I already had a meeting with the sheriff's office, and if we have to put a school resource officer in every school, that would take over half the force," Burrough said. "It's not just a burden to us, but to the sheriff's office."

The bill says a SRO can be a member of a law enforcement agency or can be employed directly by a school district. The bill lays out specific training a person must receive to be a certified SRO.

Estes said placing an SRO full-time at each school would be expensive.

"It would probably be over $110,000" annually, he said. "Probably closer to $120,000."

Estes said he agrees with a lot of the goals of the bill, such as training teachers to recognize mental health issues. He said the district has already hardened school entrances and has had its facilities reviewed for risks by the Center for School Safety.

"Obviously, there's room for improvement, but we are close in line with a lot of these things (except) the personnel mandates in this bill," Estes said.

Robbie Davis, superintendent of Muhlenberg County Schools, said the requirements to add more counselors and school resource officers will be difficult to meet for districts. Because legislators won't craft a new two-year budget until next year, the bill doesn't contain any funding.

"The concern is it's an unfunded mandate, because all school districts are struggling financially," Davis said.

At a press conference area public school superintendents held to protest a different bill, superintendents said the last state budget provided no new money for textbooks or teacher training and the state pays just half of districts' transportation costs.

"I'm confident our district, and all other districts, are working toward these goals," Davis said. "We are working on all of that now when we can. You just can't do it all at one time.

"Unfunded mandates are hard for us to absorb any more, even when (the ideas) are great," Davis said.

Fleming said the bill does not include hard deadlines for adding SROs or additional guidance counselors to schools. To have one guidance counselor for every 250 students, DCPS would have to hire more counselors, he said.

"We do not meet that ratio, and there's probably not a district in the state" that does, Fleming said. Both the SRO and guidance counselor provisions say more counselors and officers will be added when additional funding becomes available.

"My question is, does that mean when local funding becomes available, or state funding?" Fleming said.

"I understand this is not a budget year," Fleming said. "... At this point, we are all kind of 'wait and see' what comes of that" next year.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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