A Comprehensive Approach
Columbine, Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and in Kentucky, Heath and Marshall. Those school names have become synonymous with fear, tragedy and the senseless deaths of innocents at the hands of active shooters on school grounds where they believed they were safe.
Since April 20, 1999, when 13 people were shot and killed during the Columbine High School massacre, the rate of school shootings seems to have been on the rise. Or, at bare minimum, more incidents are making the news. Now it seems, more than ever, parents are afraid to send children to institutions whose sole purpose is to educate and protect them, while teachers are fearful not only for themselves but also for the young ones looking to them for safety and learning.
Following the Jan. 23, 2018, Marshall County High School shooting, legislators, educators and law enforcement leaders began fiercely working on the School Safety and Resiliency Act (Senate Bill 1 or SB1), which was introduced into the Senate on Jan. 9, 2019, and, through diligence by those involved, signed into law on March 3.
What’s in the Bill?
“Much of the legislation includes things that were already in place but weren’t very visible,” according to Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT) Assistant General Counsel Deaidra Douglas. “(This) bill pulled everything together and brought all the components that had evolved over several decades into one very clear limelight.”
The act established the Office of the State School Security Marshal at DOCJT, as well as developed and implemented a school safety coordinator-training program. It also required the creation of a 66-point school-security risk assessment tool and increased school security requirements. Active-shooter training was mandated for staff and directed all schools to adopt a trauma-informed approach to education, among other mental health components. Additionally, the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security was tasked with developing an anonymous threat-reporting tool that became available in July and implemented by the Kentucky Center for School Safety (KCSS).
A one-hour training on responding to active-shooter situations is now required for all school staff whose duties require contact with students. The training has been provided via video produced by the DOCJT Communication staff.
“What you’re talking about here is securing the future of the commonwealth,” said DOCJT Commissioner Alex Payne, who was highly instrumental in SB1. “That’s what our children are. That’s the most important thing in our lives—our kids. If we can’t take care of them, what good are we? This (bill) is a comprehensive step in that direction.”
Moreover, the act mandated the hiring of school resource officers, changed the definition and rules surrounding the position and introduced revitalized, specialized SRO training. Payne added that mandating each school have an SRO was common sense.
“You look at banks. You look at any large corporation or airport. Anywhere you are serious about security, you are going to have uniformed officers,” said Payne. “They are armed and in place. That has always served as a deterrent. Even out in the day-to-day world, you don’t have establishments getting robbed where uniformed policeman show up frequently.
“If, God forbid, something happens (at a school) some violent-type crime or active shooter, who are they going to call?” Payne asked. “It’s going to be uniformed police officers who are going to be coming there. So why not have one there ahead of time?”
More than just an armed guard, new SRO training will prepare officers to blend in and be productive to the school environment, establish relationships with students and faculty, be a liaison between the institution and local law enforcement and be a good role model for kids who will see them every day, Payne further explained.
Taking the helm as the new State School Security Marshal is Madison County resident Ben Wilcox. A former law enforcement officer, SRO and DOCJT instructor, Wilcox also adds father of two and husband of a school counselor to his long list of qualifications for the job.
Choosing Wilcox for the job came easy, according to Payne, who cited not only the man’s personality, background, education and passion, but also his morals as making him an obvious choice for the position.
The office Wilcox leads will be comprised of two supervisors and 12 compliance officers. Divided among regions, they will travel the state and review each Kentucky public school annually to ensure compliance with the law based on the risk assessment tool, in collaboration with KCSS and the Kentucky Department of Education. The tool will assist in identifying vulnerabilities in the school’s safety measures and mechanisms for improvement.
Presentations on the assessment have been given across the state, and the 66-point assessment tool has been provided to schools. This will allow them to assess their facilities and procedures before the first visit from a compliance officer.
However, officials say the visit shouldn’t be one to fear.
“Your compliance officers are going to be local,” explained Wilcox to educators during a summer Kentucky School Board Association meeting. “They will know the schools they are assessing. You’re not going to have a blank face coming to see your schools from Richmond every year. You’re going to have a connection to those compliance officers. If you have questions, you can call them up, and they can come to you.”
“We aren’t here to wield a hammer,” Commissioner Payne added. “We are here to work with people, but we will have to make a fair and impartial assessment.”
Schools will be given a grace period at the start. During the compliance officer’s first visit in 2020, they will get to know the school and review the assessment with staff. However, the initial information gathered will not be counted in a report to allow necessary changes to be made. The next time compliance officers visit during the 2020/2021 school year, it will be unannounced, an official assessment will occur and a report filed.
Written directly from the School Safety and Resiliency Act, the school-risk assessment tool requires several specific measures to maximize safety in educational facilities.
Measures include hardening of the schools by requiring electronic-locking front doors, surveillance, locked classroom doors during instructional time, classroom-window coverings, a threat-assessment team per school, emergency-operation plans for various scenarios including fire, severe weather, earthquakes or building lockdowns; and evacuation routes. The assessment will include questions regarding the school’s relationship with local first responders and their familiarity with the building’s layout or the school’s emergency procedures.
“One thing that’s going to be great about (the assessment) is that we can spotlight the good things going on in schools and share that with others,” Wilcox said. “So if a certain county is looking for a way to do something new and another county is already doing that, then we have set up connection points. They can use each other as resources in what’s working across the state.”
The State Security Marshal’s Office will combine assessments into an annual report and present the findings to the KCSS board, newly restructured to include viewpoints from law enforcement, educators and mental health professionals.
If a school is having difficulty, KCSS will step in and provide training and resources to help bring them up to compliance level, according to the Center’s Executive Director Jon Akers.
“Schools have been extremely receptive,” said Akers. “We have generated a whole lot of conversation ... That’s what we want to do. We want this to be on their front burner and for them to be asking questions and seeking advice.”
Working together, Akers and Wilcox have been providing answers to parents, educators and law enforcement about the legislation and the process it mandates.
Making It Work
Beginning July 21, 2021, school districts will be required to employ one school counselor for every 250 students, as well as a school resource officer per facility. Both positions are to be filled as funds and personnel become available.
“Requiring guidance counselors is a huge step,” noted Payne. “That’s going to be key in reestablishing relationships between the student body and faculty so important information can flow freely... to protect your school.”
Citing the mental health component, Akers added that SB1 isn’t just about school shooters but rather a complete approach to school safety.
“We are looking at the hardware and the heartware ... We are looking at what makes these kids tick,” explained Akers. “We are asking counselors to spend more time with kids, talking to school districts about reducing the student/counselor ratio, asking SROs to get ramped up in mental health issues and adverse childhood experience ... We want to be as holistically prepared as possible for anything and everything that could happen from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a school day.”
To aid schools in funding the initiative, SB1 gives schools the ability to establish 501c3s and accept philanthropic donations earmarked toward physical security needs, SRO and mental health professional salaries, etc. Schools will have the ability to determine if a donation fits the school’s needs.
We want to be as holistically prepared
as possible for anything and everything that could happen from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a school day.
– Jon Akers, Executive Director Kentucky Center for School Safety
While there is no denying there are a lot of moving parts and requirements that make up SB1, Payne cites it as a significant first step in attempting to prevent another Marshall or another Heath High School shooting.
“It’s a horrible thing to see kids dead in a school. And if we can’t address that as a commonwealth, if we can’t address that as a community or as individuals, then there’s no help for us,” said Payne. “It’s significant in that, hopefully, here in Kentucky, we have said enough is enough. We still need to do some other things and try some different things. I hope and pray we never have to experience something like this again. You can also say nothing is ever 100-percent for sure. Is it a whole lot better than what we have been doing? Absolutely. (The School Safety and Resiliency Act) is a living breathing thing. We will continue to improve it. But this is a comprehensive starting point.”