Washington legislators roll out school safety proposals

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OLYMPIA — School resource officers, threat assessment and statewide school safety best practices are the topics of five newly introduced bills in Olympia. The Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee heard public testimony on the bills on Wednesday.

“We decided, and I worked with the house very carefully on this and with others, not do an omnibus bill with everything packed in but to do a number of different bills addressing, you know, different elements,” said committee chairwoman Lisa Wellman, D- Mercer Island, on the reasoning behind proposing multiple bills.

Dr. Joshua Meek, Superintendent of the Moses Lake School District, is encouraged by the conversations and bills happening in the legislative process on school safety and security.

“We have several hopes for the outcome of this legislative session — primarily that there is continued recognition of our need to meet the social and emotional needs of the students of our community,” said Meek. “We take pride in the progressive moves we have made within our district to implement a mental health counseling program in our partnership with Grant Integrated Services. However, I would love to see the legislature recognize the need and commit funding to make that a reality in all school districts.”

One of the bills, SB 5052, adds training requirements for school resource officers (SROs), which will be created by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The training would be implemented by a grant program.

SROs are also the subject of SB 5141, which emphasizes the state does not require SROs in schools, but that if the district chooses to have an SRO then the district must follow statewide requirements for training. SB 5141’s proposed training requirement topics include the rights of children in schools, child and adolescent development, recognition and response to youth mental health issues and the education rights of students with disabilities, among other things.

A method for families to file a complaint against school resource officers would also be required under the bill. The bill does not include funding for resource officers or the training. Both SB 5141 and SB 5052 address school resource officers in different ways; amendments to both bills were mentioned at the Wednesday hearing.

“I didn’t want my daughter to become another statistic in the school to prison pipeline,” said Cory Walster during his testimony on the bills. Walster is a single parent to his daughter who has been diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and cannot always control her reactions. Walster stated his concern in having law enforcement in school during his public testimony. He is also a “game changer-leader” for the non-profit Civil Survival, which advocates and organizes people directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

Walster supports SB 5141’s training requirements, but he is concerned that local community members and parents aren’t included in SB 5052’s process.

Threat assessment processes would have to be to be developed by all school districts in the state under SB 5216. The threat assessment process would include four components: it must be based on behaviors, be incorporated into the school district’s system of student supports, engage with families whenever possible and address the needs of students with individual education programs, disabilities or other special needs.

The threat assessment program must also have a re-engagement plan for students who are considered threatening under the assessment process.

Another bill, SB 5317, creates a Washington State School Safety Center and puts school safety coordinators around the state, creating a school safety network. The bill is dependent on receiving the necessary funding, but an estimate on the amount necessary is not yet available.

“This is putting in place the structure that can really support the program,” said Wellman on SB 5317. Wellman noted the bill has a companion in the House of Representatives, HB 1216.

Greg Lynch, Superintendent of Bremerton Educational District, spoke in support of the bill and mentioned that 65 percent of Washington school districts are small school districts that “struggle mightily” in these areas. Lynch hopes SB 5317 would build a network foundation that resources could be added to the network as they become available.

“This bill systemwide focuses around building a foundation of supports through a statewide network, from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction) through regional school safety centers and then to school districts and then to our schools,” said Lynch. “It remains a critical shortfall in our state.”

A committee dubbed the “School Safety and Student Well-Being Advisory Committee” would be located in the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office under the bill.

The measure would require the creation of statewide school safety best practices and a website for increased availability of information and research. Requirements for first responder agency notification to a school of a situation that could require an evacuation or a lockdown would change under SB 5514. First responder agencies would be required to determine if other schools in the area should be notified, after notifying the affected school. This regulation would include private schools as well.

None of the senate bills is currently scheduled for executive session to potentially move out of committee.

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