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Safe Schools: New Utah School Safety Commission wants action, not reports

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s newly formed School Safety Commission hopes to implement important safety changes before the start of the 2018-2019 education year.

“The federal government is too big,” said Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, about waiting for Congress to improve school safety. “I really think local solutions are going to be far more effective.”

The Utah School Safety Commission meets at the Capitol on March 15, 2018.

The nonpartisan, volunteer commission was formed during the annual session of the Utah Legislature in response to the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The Utah House of Representatives describes the commission as bringing “community members of varying expertise together to discuss potential policy ideas that could be used to make Utah schools safer.”

The group’s goal, Kennedy said, is to find actionable items that will create real change.

“If anybody can fix this issue, I would trust the people of Utah to do that,” Kennedy said. “We are more kind and considerate, we are more service oriented than most people in the country.”

Members of the Utah School Safety Commission introduce themselves during the group’s first full meeting.

KSL cameras were invited to the introduction portion of the commission’s first full meeting on March 15, in a Capitol board room. After that, the meeting turned private. Kennedy said keeping the doors closed will allow the small group to build a trusting relationship.

“They can actually honestly speak about why things don’t work or why they do work,” he said.

The group of about two dozen consists of a few lawmakers, educators, law enforcement officers, mental health experts, a guns-right advocate, a school architect, a university professor and two high school students. While Kennedy leads the discussion, he reminds that he’s not in charge of the diverse gathering.

“This is not a legislator that’s making this happen,” Kennedy said. “These people have the answers; I don’t have the answers.”

As they meet over several months, the anticipation is that only the best ideas surface and move forward. If the ideas require the Legislature’s approval, a special session is not out of the question—especially if funding is needed to implement the recommendations.

Volunteer members of the Utah School Safety Commission gather around a table at the Capitol.

“When I heard that this commission was being put together, I was just excited,” said Justin Chapman, a captain with the Sandy City Police Department. “What I’m concerned about is if we are really giving our best efforts.”

Chapman hopes his experience as a resource officer will help the commission understand what’s going on inside schools.

“Let’s think about what this really is and not just talk,” he added.

While members of the commission plan to debate possible solutions, ranging from technology and school layouts to gun control and mental health services, some members hope they focus on what goes wrong way before the shots ring out.

“We are talking about broken hearts and broken minds,” Kennedy said about students who turn to violence.

High school students Elizabeth Love, left, and Isaac Reese attend their first meeting with the Utah School Safety Commission.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association President, also wants to pinpoint the root causes, even though they can be complex and the hardest to know how to fix.

“They have experienced isolation,” she said about past school shooters. “They have been bullied in school; they see the school that constantly reminds them of their less-than status.”

Matthews says the biggest message she is hearing from educators across the state is that Utah needs to do a better job of providing mental health resources and support.

“We must act—our students are demanding that we act,” Matthews said. “We can’t allow one more child, one more teacher, or one more educator to lose their lives in school.”

Kennedy agrees that there is a demand for action and promises the commission won’t result in just a lengthy written report.

“I don’t want reports,” he said. “I want items to take action on.”

Some members of the commission, along with other state and local leaders, are planning a series of informational meetings on school safety. So far, the following meetings have been scheduled:

March 27: Fremont High School, Plain City. 7 p.m.

March 28: Cache County Historic Courthouse, Logan. 7 p.m.

April 3: Box Elder High School, Brigham City. 7 p.m.

April 10: Morgan School District Building, Morgan. 7 p.m.

April 11: Rich School District Building. Randolph. 7 p.m.

In addition, citizens can submit ideas and comments for the commission’s consideration through an online form located at: House.utah.gov.

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