Mental health a focus of new Kentucky school safety bill

PADUCAH — Federal leaders and state lawmakers agree: mental health is an important part of school safety. That’s reflected in a recently-released federal school safety report and in a bill introduced this week in Kentucky.

On Wednesday, Republican state Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville unveiled Senate Bill 1, also known as the School Safety and Resiliency Act. The bill was crafted with the help the School Safety Working Group, a taskforce made up of lawmakers who traveled throughout Kentucky to get input on how to improve school safety. One of the members of the task force is Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll of Paducah.

“Our role was to kind of set a perimeter and set an outline to begin with on what we would like in schools without going too far, because we recognize that each school district is different,” Carroll told Local 6.

If passed into law, the bill would establish a state goal of having one mental health professional for every 1,500 students in Kentucky beginning on July 1, 2021, as funds are available.

It would also require every public middle and high school administrator to “disseminate suicide prevention awareness information by video or live presentation to all students in grades six through 12.”

Furthermore, every staff member who directly interacts with students must undergo at least one hour of suicide prevention training, which includes learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Locally, Four Rivers Behavioral Health provides a clinical practitioner to every school in McCracken County and Paducah public schools. Clinical practitioners are also at schools in surrounding counties.

One of the Four Rivers clinical practitioners is Sally Carter, who works with students at Paducah Middle School,  Paducah Tilghman High School, Clark Elementary School and Choices Educational Center. Talking with Local 6, she reflected on her memory of Jan. 23 last year — when the Marshall County shooting happened.

“I was walking into Paducah Middle School at the time and actually talked to several students who had siblings that went to Marshall County. They were extremely upset,” Carter says.

After the shooting, 15 clinical practitioners from Four Rivers spent a month in Marshall County to help those dealing with the tragedy.

“PTSD symptoms can occur immediately. They can occur six months later,” Carter says.

To help prevent a tragedy, Carter says it’s important to address mental health with students early on.

“You have an immediate opportunity to start working on problem-solving skills, to start working on social skills, to start working on communication skills,” Carter says. “So, the sooner you start all of that, the better the child is going to become equipped to deal with whatever is going on that would cause them to feel that they needed to do something drastic.”

The bill also includes the creation of a new position — the state school security marshal, whose job would be to enforce safety compliance similar to the state fire marshal enforcing fire safety. The state school security marshal would present a report at least once a year about findings and recommendations to the Kentucky Center for School Safety Board of Directors. Schools that do not resolve safety issues or submit safety risk assessments would face sanctions.

In addition, the bill would require each district to appoint a school safety coordinator, who would receive state training, then administer local school safety training.  The bill also calls for a state goal of providing more school resource officers in schools “as soon as practicable.”

Carroll says, although the pension crisis makes it tough to allocate funding, he’s confident the bill would be signed into law.

“To this point, I have not heard of any push back at all from anyone on the efforts that we’re making at this point,” Carroll says. “I wish there’s more we could do at this point. I wish we have more resources available. But again, I think it’s a great start, and I think many schools are way ahead of us and are already addressing this problem, and are already being effective in the programs that they’re initiating within their school district.”

Carroll says after the state legislature returns in February, lawmakers will work to move the bill, which would allow two to three weeks for the public to make comments.

Click here for a summary of the bill. Click here to read the full 30-page version.

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