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FOCUS: Public school systems are making student safety a priority

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Police officers move in to arrest Taylor Owens during an active shooter training at Western Hills High School in 2014. (Bobby Ellis/bellis@state-journal.com)

Both Franklin County and Frankfort Independent Schools have been taking measures to protect students, even before a recent state law was passed in regards to school safety. 

In March, Gov. Matt Bevin signed Senate Bill 1 into law, which requires schools to have several safety measures in place. The bill cleared the Senate with a 37-0 vote and the House with 96-3 votes, The Associated Press reported. 

The law has a few goals, such as placing police officers in schools, having at least one counselor on staff for every 250 students and directing schools to adopt a "trauma-informed" approach to education, but as of now, it lacks funding for all school districts to comply right away. The AP reported that Republican budget leaders in both state chambers promised to provide the funding in 2020 but that they did not know the cost or where the money would come from. Therefore, Kentucky schools don't have to meet the requirements of the law just yet, but local school districts are already preparing for the law to go into effect. 

Franklin County Schools Superintendent Mark Kopp said that the district created  additional counselor positions at each middle school and an additional counselor at each high school. Elkhorn Middle School has 860 students, Bondurant Middle School has 700, Franklin County High School has 1,000 and Western Hills High has 865 students this upcoming school year.

He said part of the reason that FCS wanted to bring on counselors now was so that the district would be ahead of the game and have people on staff while other school districts in Kentucky are looking to hire counselors. Kopp has previously discussed the addition of counselors when Senate Bill 1 was going through the state legislature. The counselors are paid according to the district's certified salary schedule, which means that they are paid based on the types of degrees, or ranks, they have and years of experience in school systems. Counselors must also work an extra 20 days outside of the academic year. 

FCS has not looked to hire additional counselors at the elementary schools at this time, as most of them would be in compliance. The only one that might not be is Collins Lane Elementary, Kopp said. The school has a little less than 500 students and does not meet the second threshold for another counselor. 

Kyle Sexton, school safety administrator for the district, has studied the law and said that school counselors must spend around 60% of their day with direct service to students. Counselors and staff must also have training on using trauma-informed approaches with students. 

He said that FCS has also analyzed its schools to determine other possible safety upgrades to buildings, but he declined to comment specifically about those as to not compromise student safety. 

FCS is focused on creating a “student-centered” environment, Kopp said. Even if Senate Bill 1 had not passed, the district would continue to look at ways to improve student safety. Last summer, FCS hired former Frankfort Police Chief Jeff Abrams to be one of the first school safety coordinators in the state. 

“Our number one priority is the safety of all students,” Kopp said. 

Sexton said that the district will have to use the STOP tip line, which is monitored by local school officers and the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, to report anonymous reports of unsafe, potentially harmful, dangerous, violent or criminal activities. The law also mandates that School Resource Officers must have 40 hours annually, for a total of 120 hours after three years, to remain certified as a SRO and, pending available funding, to have at least one SRO in each school building. Increased security measures will also go into effect under the law, such as locking all classroom doors during instructional time and, as funding comes available, have each school entrance controlled with electronically locked doors, cameras and an intercom. School districts must also annually inform all sixth- through 12th-graders about statutory penalties for terroristic threatening.  

Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Houston Barber said that FIS has been in compliance with the one counselor to 250 students ratio for several years, and has taken previous steps to ensure students' safety, so much more will not be needed to comply with Senate Bill 1. The schools have a working relationship with local law enforcement and communicate safety measures with families. Frankfort High School will have 260 students and Second Street School will have 652 students for the upcoming school year. 

FIS aims to give students social-emotional learning, academic support and access to opportunities. In addition to school counselors for students, the district offers on-site family therapy and support to its students’ families through the Kentucky Counseling Center. 

As the school district works on its facilities plan, it will talk about specifics in complying with the bill, Barber said. 

The school district has taken some material approaches to ensure student safety, as both Frankfort High School and Second Street School now have security vestibules at their front doors. The entrances were reconfigured last summer and help school employees direct and verify visitors before they enter the building. 

“That’s been positive for both schools,” Barber said. 

The school safety bill was introduced to the state legislature after the Marshall County High School shooting in western Kentucky in January 2018. Two 15-year-old students, Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, were killed and more than a dozen were injured. The shooting was one of 24 school shootings with injuries or deaths in the country last year, according to Education Week. So far in 2019, there have been 14 school shootings with injuries or deaths across the United States. 

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