‘Urgency Has Kind of Faded,’ 6 Months After Parkland, Lawmakers Wait To Act On School Safety

Aug 14, 2018, 12:03 AM | Updated: 5:13 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The possibility is fading, lawmakers say, for a special legislative session this year to enact any of the recommendations from the Utah Safe Schools Commission.

“The urgency has kind of faded,” said Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton. “It’s human nature, it’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.”

Utah officials promised quick action in the weeks following the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In March, the state created a nonpartisan, volunteer commission to come up with policy ideas that lawmakers could potentially turn into laws.

“If anybody can fix this issue, I would trust the people of Utah to do that,” Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine said before the commission’s first meeting.

Kennedy, whose role was to facilitate the commission’s conversation, said the goal was to find actionable items that would create real change.

After meeting several times, the commission released its report in June. The top three recommendations, which had “strong consensus among the group that action should be taken,” require legislative approval.

They include creating mental health teams at all schools to assess threats, mandating mental health reporting to background check databases to keep the mentally ill from buying guns, and passing a “red flag” law in Utah to allow for restraining orders to remove a person’s access to guns if they are threatening to harm themselves or others.

“There’s a gap in the law,” Handy said about the need for the restraining orders. “We ought to have this tool in the toolbox.”

Handy is currently drafting a new “red flag” bill after a similar measure of his failed during the 2018 legislative session. However, he doesn’t think lawmakers will debate the proposal until next year’s regular session.

“I just don’t see the political will to do this right now,” he said. “I don’t think any of these things will get any kind of traction for a special session. I don’t see it happening.”

In their report, members of the commission wrote that they hoped their top three ideas would be implemented quickly and that “there would be consideration of enactment at a special session.”

The governor is the only one who can convene lawmakers in a special session. Gov. Gary Herbert’s office told KSL on Monday that if the legislature reaches a consensus on the commission’s recommendations that he would consider putting a special session in place.

A bill file has also been opened for another one of the commission’s top three recommendations.

“The urgency has kind of faded. It’s human nature, it’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.”

Representative Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, says his bill would provide the structure and the money for mental health teams.

“The legislation would say that every school needs to have a threat assessment team in place,” he said, adding that the teams would consist of at least three people. “It’s a school administrator and it’s a representative from law enforcement and it’s a mental health professional.”

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, was on the commission and says all along they were told a special session would be in order if their ideas were compelling enough.

“So it was a bit of a disappointment that these were not apparently compelling enough to call a special session,” Matthews said.

Even so, she says schools aren’t waiting to implement their own efforts to create safer schools.

“I think people are prioritizing the mental wellbeing of our students in so many aspects,” Matthews said, “including with the school safety.”

When lawmakers do take up the commission’s recommendations, Matthews hopes they remember that schools need flexibility in the funding they get to address safety and mental health concerns.
“What works in one district doesn’t necessarily in another,” she said. “What we need to have is adequate investment in education.”

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‘Urgency Has Kind of Faded,’ 6 Months After Parkland, Lawmakers Wait To Act On School Safety