Education

Preventing mass shootings will take money for school behavioral health support, lawmaker says

A state lawmaker from Olympia on Monday called on the Legislature in 2020 to revise the state budget to provide more funding for school safety and mental health support for students.

Democratic state Rep. Laurie Dolan was the lead sponsor this year of a bill, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law, to evaluate potential or actual threatening behavior of students to find “facts or evidence that the threat is likely to be carried out.”

Lawmakers approved $1.2 million in the two-year state budget and tapped a federal grant to add one position in each of the state’s nine educational service districts. Those employees will train and provide technical support to school officials on how to carry out the threat assessment program.

“What we know in studying the literature is that when mass shootings, God forbid, occur, they tend to happen in white suburban and often rural areas,” Dolan said. “So what we wanted to do was make sure that whatever system we put into place for school safety, it would reach our smallest districts in Washington state as well as our biggest districts.”

The measure is the “first and only law that acknowledges and codifies the importance of a comprehensive school safety support program,” said John P. Welch, superintendent of the Puget Sound ESD, which serves schools in Pierce and King counties.

Dolan didn’t get funding for other provisions of HB 1216 in 2019, and she’s going back to the well. She is asking lawmakers next year to add more positions in each ESD — one to provide training and technical support for behavioral health support and a second for safety planning and coordination with school districts. She made the announcement at a press conference at Columbia Junior High School in the Fife School District.

The state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction on Monday submitted its request for about $4 million to add the positions in the supplemental state budget and also provide about $550,000 for work that OSPI must do to implement the school safety law, said Martin Mueller, OSPI’s assistant superintendent for student engagement and support.

“School safety has to do with relationships between kids and adults,” Dolan said in an interview. “When it’s boiled down to its most common thing, that’s what it is. And to have adults be aware enough of what’s going on with individual kids that if kids are really in a situation where they need intervention that some adult in the school sees that.”

Kevin Alfano, superintendent of Fife Public Schools, backed Dolan’s initiative.

“Without action from our Legislature, students will continue to go without essential mental health and behavioral supports that they need and deserve. Data from the 2018 Healthy Youth survey in our region tells the story of students who are feeling more and more unsafe at school,” Alfano said. “The majority of our students are able to cope with these stressors with the supports of their families.

“However, more and more students do not have adequate support systems in their life outside of school.”

Dolan represents the 22nd Legislative District, which covers Olympia and parts of Lacey and Tumwater.

On Tuesday, state Reps. Kelly Chambers and Chris Gildon, both Puyallup Republicans, said they voted in favor of HB 1216 and support all of its provisions, including training and technical support for behavioral health support as well as safety planning and coordination with school districts.

“There is no doubt we need more mental health and suicide prevention resources in our schools, and the Legislature should be funding these priorities,” Chambers and Gildon said in a joint statement. “However, we also know this is an issue that requires a holistic approach.

“House Republicans have offered proposals on numerous occasions to increase the number of school resource officers in our schools. SROs are uniformed and highly trained, making them essential for responding quickly and professionally to threats. We also support efforts to construct schools with secure design principles in mind,” the two GOP House members wrote.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.
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