Utah Legislature addresses school safety, gun regulations
About a year ago, students around the country held walk-outs and marches to protest gun violence in schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the shooting death of a University of Utah student on campus sparked conversations about gun reform and school safety that are reverberating in the Utah Legislature.
Several lawmakers have proposed bills that address mental health, school safety and firearm restrictions. Todd Hauber, business administrator for Park City School District, said it is common for bills to spring up after incidents like mass shootings, but there appears to be more such bills in the works than previous years. Utah students who helped lead protests are glad to see lawmakers focus on the issues.
One of the most comprehensive bills addressing school safety is H.B. 120 from Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful. It would provide funding for schools to hire safety professionals, create a threat assessment team and improve security protocols. It received a favorable recommendation from the House Education Committee, but Hauber said the bill will likely be split into two parts to address personnel and capital resources separately.
One part of the bill would provide about $66 million for schools to improve their security systems and physical facilities, Hauber said. The other part includes about $33 million to hire health professionals and safety personnel.
Hauber said it is likely the second part of the bill will end up merging with other bills that address mental health resources. S.B. 106 from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, addresses the coverage of mental health services by the Medicaid program and H.B. 373 from Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would provide funding to school districts to hire mental health professionals.
Hauber said lawmakers have addressed mental health in schools before, but it is rare to see bills that set apart money specifically for mental health professionals. He said it would be “money well spent.”
“We are already doing it as a district. We prioritize the need for these professionals to support our students and their families,” he said.
There is some worry that districts that have already allocated resources for mental health and safety in their budgets will not receive the funding, he said. Park City recently invested in student wellness by hiring interventionists and other classroom support positions and it updated its security in schools.
“Just because we are out on the forefront, we shouldn’t be penalized,” Hauber said.
Other bills address school safety by placing restrictions on guns. Those are the ones Noah Blumenthal, a senior at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City and outreach director of March for Our Lives Utah, is most excited to see. March for Our Lives Utah is a student-led movement against gun violence.
Blumenthal said one of the bills March for Our Lives supports is H.B. 190, which has been nicknamed “Lauren’s Law” after the University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey who was shot and killed on the university’s campus last year.
The bill, from Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, states the owner of a firearm is liable for personal injury or property damage caused from the firearm if they loaned it to another person.
Blumenthal said March for Our Lives Utah is also in favor of H.B. 217 from Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. The bill would prohibit people from having a dangerous weapon within 500 feet of an elementary or secondary school.
“We think they are wonderful common-sense gun reform measures that will take marginal steps to significantly improve the issue of gun violence and suicide rates that we have here in Utah,” Blumenthal said. “We believe that it will protect students and reduce the probability of mass shootings occurring.”
Hauber said Park City School District is also in support of H.B. 217 because it would allow schools to more quickly detect a threat.
“If you can detect something that is inappropriate or out of the ordinary sooner, you have more time to respond,” he said.
Blumenthal said it is rewarding to see the group’s efforts have encouraged lawmakers to push for change.
Hannah Smith, a high school student in Salt Lake City who works in Park City, said it is encouraging to see her peers pushing for change in their communities. She is an active member of March for Our Lives Utah and has been involved in lobbying for gun reform.
She is happy to see bills aimed at regulating guns, but she worries the changes don’t go far enough.
“As all of our politicians are doing less and less to protect our schools, my generation needs to be doing more and more to protect ourselves,” she said. “We’re teenagers. We shouldn’t have to fight for our lives.”