ANDERSON – School districts already have the power under Indiana law to conduct a referendum for facilities improvements and operations.
But Senate Bill 127, which is making its way through the Indiana House, would allow public school districts to expand the grounds for a referendum to include safety and security initiatives. It has been referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.
However, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, said she doesn’t believe a referendum is the right solution because it puts the responsibility for safety and security on local property owners rather than on the state, which has a duty to all taxpayers.
“Every student in Indiana in every school deserves to have the safest environment possible, not just what their local community can afford. And that means we have to step up — and by ‘we,’ I mean the General Assembly,” she said.
School districts, to some degree, already use referendum money for safety and security improvements. For instance, Anderson Community Schools marketed its capital improvements referendum approved by voters last May as being needed to improve security by installing entries in school buildings that first route all visitors through the office.
After teacher salaries, school safety and security is probably the most talked about issue in the 2019 General Assembly, having generated more than a dozen of the hundreds of pieces of legislation introduced.
Much of this year’s school safety legislation is based on the 2018 Indiana School Safety Recommendations developed by a team of education, law enforcement and mental health experts. The recommendations are grouped into three broad categories: enhanced mental health services’ safety equipment, technology, tools and training; and policy or legislative considerations regarding school safety.
“No greater priority exists than keeping schools safe from harm,” the 134-page report said.
School safety and security has become a priority in the wake of the perception that mass shootings are increasing since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
None of the legislators in and around Madison County authored or co-authored any of the safety and security legislation. But Austin, a former school teacher, said she believes school safety and security should be a top priority in the General Assembly’s budget appropriations process.
“It’s going to be interesting to see which bill crosses the finish line,” she said. “It’s particularly important that the General Assembly appropriate adequate resources to help these schools meet these recommendations.”
And none of the budget options should place the responsibility on districts, such as one that would require them to come up with matching funds, Austin insisted.
“Some districts may not be able to come up with matching funds, or they may be limited in what they can come up with,” she said.
Though current proposed legislation appropriates as much as $14 million toward safety and security, that really isn’t enough to cover the nearly 2,000 buildings where more than 1 million students are taught, Austin said. That would come out to about $7,000 per building, possibly enough to complete a small project but not enough to hire a resource officer.
A teacher in the Daleville Community Schools, Rep. Melanie Wright said the issue of safety and security sometimes creeps into her mind during the course of a day.
“As much as it shouldn’t, it does. I often think about it because I have somebody else’s precious commodity in my class every single day,” she said.
School safety and security weighs heavily on the minds of Indiana lawmakers following high-profile shooting incidents in Noblesville and Richmond, Wright said.
A 13-year-old student shot and injured teacher Jason Seaman and student Ella Whistler May 25, 2018, at Noblesville West Middle School. Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Felix in November sentenced the boy to be held in a maximum-security juvenile correction facility, possibly until he is 18 years old.
In Richmond, a 14-year-old boy exchanged gunfire with police before taking his own life on Dec., 13, 2018, at Dennis Intermediate School. He wasn't a student at the school.
“There’s a lot of bipartisan support for this legislation,” Wright said.
One of the most comprehensive pieces of school safety legislation is House Bill 1004, which tackles everything from funding to mandatory threat assessments and mental wellness services for students at public and non-public schools. This legislation has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.
Its companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 266, would require “a law enforcement agency to send a written copy of the statutory definition of a "dangerous" person, and written instructions concerning the reporting of a dangerous person, to each charter school, nonpublic school, and school corporation in the law enforcement agency's jurisdiction.” In addition, it would require the Indiana Department of Education to distribute guidelines for the "If You See Something, Say Something" tip line and a teacher preparation program regarding school safety.
Senate Bill 266 has been referred to the Committee on Education.
Another high-profile and somewhat controversial bill is House Bill 1253, which would create a firearms safety, education and training curriculum funded by the Indiana Safe Schools Fund for teachers and other school staff. This bill has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.