NEW FINDINGS: School-safety legislation would expand ESPLOST use

Many school systems, such as Fulton County, have their own police force. Newly proposed state senate legislation would provided training for all school safety personnel. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Many school systems, such as Fulton County, have their own police force. Newly proposed state senate legislation would provided training for all school safety personnel. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

School safety promises to be prominent on the 2019 Georgia Legislature’s agenda, with two measures already filed based on a Senate study committee’s recommendations — including fundamental changes to education penny sales tax allocations.

The House also had a school-safety study committee. There is a lot of overlap in the groups’ recommendations, and some differences, and a number of items in their reports are not included in proposed legislation.

The committees were formed at the end of last year’s session to recommend best practices to protect the state’s 1.7 million students and funding formulas to pay for those actions.

Sen. John Albers, R – Roswell, who chaired the Senate School Safety Study Committee, wasted no time turning his committee's plan into proposed legislation. The first week of the legislature he filed Senate Bill 15, also known as the "Keeping Georgia's Schools Safe Act" which would require public and private schools to form safety plans and carry out safety drills. It would also establish a specific task force to oversee school safety plans and provide school safety training.

He also proposed Senate Resolution 12, to amend the state constitution to allow ESPLOST funds — money from local sales taxes for education — to be allocated toward the security of schools, including additional staffing such as mental health counselors.

“The School Safety Study Committee was one of – if not the most – impactful and important study committees that I have been a part of,” said Albers. “The issues discussed and testimonies heard were … turned into action through the pieces of legislation filed.”

Both of those safety points — expanding the scope of ESPLOST and establishing unified training for school safety — were also addressed in the House School Safety Study Committee’s plan. That proposal looks to increase the number of mental health counselors at schools and also includes modifications for ESPLOST — expanding it to include school security as an allowable expense. Currently, use of ESPLOST money is limited to one-time capital improvements and not long-term, sustained endeavors.

Although Albers’ proposal mentioned using the GBI’s Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, it didn’t list the “See Something, Send Something” by name. Once the bill reaches the appropriations stage, language about specific programs will be included, said Albers’ office.

Whether that app will be in the funding formula wasn’t clear. Albers office said the specific app wouldn’t be mentioned in the legislation.

But local school safety administrators might not be willing to abandon their own systems.

“We are in constant contact with the GBI,” said Shannon Flournoy, director of Safety and Security for Fulton County Schools. “We are already sharing information, but having a way for our community to reach us is an important part of keeping our schools safe.”

Albers has already received support for his committee’s ideas, but mainly for what wasn’t in the plan.

The Georgia Association of Educators praised the committee for not recommending arming teachers.

“GAE wants to first commend the committee on not recommending that teachers be armed. That was our association’s number one goal with regard to school safety concerns. The committee did address an alternative, with the possibility of incentivizing outside law enforcement personnel to supplement current resource officers in coordination of course with local schools.”

Although arming teachers wasn’t mentioned in either the Senate nor House plan, it wasn’t prohibited either.

Last year two Georgia school districts passed regulations allowing teachers to carry firearms in schools.

Albers’ proposed legislation also left out mandates for student, parent and community responsibility that had been part of the final committee plan. The committee mentioned charging parents with felonies if their children become dangers to schools. It also insisted that students be positive in their social media actions and report potential threats to the proper authorities in a timely manner.

With both committees compiling a laundry list of ideas on school safety, education advocates across the state worry that important aspects may slip through the cracks.

In a symposium before the current Georgia General Assembly convened, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education unveiled a list of top ten issues it would like to see addressed. No. 4 is school safety.

“Debates about how to respond to school shootings can overshadow a broader discussion of school safety more generally,” according to the partnership. “School shootings, like those in Parkland, Florida, are still statistically rare, especially when compared to the safety issues schools deal with daily, such as bullying, fights and theft.”

The organization has said it would like to see support for programs that impact school climate and support student learning, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, mental health supports, language and literacy, and Social and Emotional Learning competencies embedded into state standards.

“It’s very encouraging to see that school safety is being taken seriously and the proposed legislation is a good first step,” said Dana Rickman, vice president of GPEE. “But if lawmakers truly want to make schools safe they should also look at issues such as school climate, mental health of the community and student engagement.”

Senate School Safety Study Committee recommendations

Crisis Prevention: Use of ESPLOST funds should be expanded to include school safety, and there should be a single reporting system for threats.

Physical Security of Buildings, Facilities, and Buses: Each school system should conduct a campus review to identify potential weaknesses in the security of all buildings and facilities.

Emergency Response: Local law enforcement agencies and emergency services departments should create emergency response plans and create special joint emergency response units.

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