Michigan school safety bills begin first hearings
Lansing – Early versions of Michigan’s first school safety reforms since the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting steer toward campus security and away from gun laws, but the size and application of the new funds remains uncertain.
Lawmakers agree school security funding has been a long-neglected priority, especially in Michigan’s most cash-strapped districts. The Senate last week unanimously approved an extra $18.6 million for school safety initiatives this fiscal year, to be spent on grants for physical building enhancements and safety assessments, a new “panic button” smartphone app system and a $650,000 expansion of the attorney general’s OK2SAY confidential tip line. The House decided to earmark $25 million for school safety in next year’s budget.
The House also began hearings last week on a bipartisan school safety package. It would cement Michigan’s most sweeping campus security protocols yet and establish a school safety commission to control the funds being debated in House and Senate budget talks.
“This is the first step that we should have probably done many, many years ago,” said bill sponsor Rep. Jason Wentworth, a Clare Republican. “We’re just now catching up to the rest of the country.”
The commission proposed by the five-bill bundle would be responsible for creating, inspecting and grading schools’ safety metrics and would steer funds for improvements accordingly. The legislation also ramps up building security requirements for all schools constructed starting in 2019.
Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Snyder issued an executive order creating a temporary school safety task force to jumpstart his own plans of funneling $20 million into upgrades for up to 400 schools’ security features, the OK2SAY program and behavioral health assessment training. Senate Democrats countered with a $100 million school safety package and renewed calls for gun reform.
The legislative activity emerges more than two months after the U.S.’s deadliest school shooting in five years claimed 17 lives inside a Florida high school. Lawmakers initially discussed a smattering of gun ideas that ranged from arming teachers to legalizing temporary firearm confiscations, also known as “red flag” laws.
Snyder, a Republican, endorsed the latter proposal, but both chambers of the GOP-controlled Legislature have been reluctant to budge on gun rights.
School safety remains the more viable path to thwart campus firearm violence in a state that has seen its share of campus threats. In the first month after Parkland, the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network ranked Michigan third in the U.S. for volume of school threats and violent incidents.
The U.S. Attorney for Michigan’s eastern district, which includes Detroit, said earlier this month that an unprecedented “epidemic” of threats are “damaging our communities and terrifying our citizens.”
Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said his office has gone from seeing about one school threat a week to multiple ones per day since Parkland.
“The copy cats are through the roof,” he said. “It obviously is very scary to students, parents and teachers and it’s disruptive, which is why we take such a hard-line stance on prosecuting any threat.”
The money from the Senate’s appropriations bill is an upgrade from the $2 million that the state set aside for school security in 2017. But Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough to address dwindling counselor and mental health resources in some schools in Michigan, which has the third worst counselor-to-student ratio according to an American School Counselor Association survey.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said the Senate’s $18.6 million appropriations bill must be “a first step, not a final commitment.”
“Once you have a school shooting, you’ve lost,” said the Flint Democrat. “Many times (the students) are feeling alone. Sometimes it ends up in suicide more often than school shootings. So, I think putting resources toward what the schools think they need is a much better way.”
Rep. Yousef Rabhi said the five-bill House package’s initiatives for metal detectors and surveillance measures are not making schools safer, given Michigan law allows open carry inside schools if the firearm owner has a concealed pistol permit.
“Instead of creating a prison environment, we should be creating a supportive environment in schools,” said Rabhi, a Democrat from Ann Arbor. “What would make schools safer is if we invest money in hiring social workers and hiring psychologists.”
Wentworth said he plans to introduce an amendment softening the building inspection metrics, but overall security standards in Michigan must be unified.
“Why is it that there are so many different protocols and differences between the schools?” he asked. “When you look at where Michigan’s at compared to other states, we’re behind.”