Topeka Kansas House Republicans unveiled a package of initiatives Tuesday aimed at improving safety and security in public schools.
The Kansas Safe and Secure Schools Act, which GOP leaders said would soon be introduced, calls on the Kansas State Board of Education to establish statewide standards for building security, with $5 million for grants to help districts pay for building upgrades, as well as establishing curriculum guidelines for gun safety education programs.
The bill also authorizes school districts to coordinate with local law enforcement and emergency management agencies to review and evaluate current building infrastructure and security policies, and it provides funding for the Kansas State Department of Education to hire additional staff to review and evaluate school safety and security plans.
One thing it does not include, however, is any new restriction on gun sales or gun ownership, an issue that has been at the center of a national debate over school safety in the wake of a Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.
"The purpose of this bill is to get our arms around the things we can agree on, something that we can make a difference right away," House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said during a news conference announcing the package.
"Keeping our infrastructure safe and secure for kids is something that, again, unites us," he said. "We also think a big part of this, not included in the bill, is mental health, and we have folks meeting to discuss that as well."
Ryckman first announced plans to come up with a "comprehensive" solution to school safety issues on Feb. 22, the day he pulled a bill off the House debate calendar calling on the State Board of Education to establish standards for gun safety programs modeled after programs already being offered through the National Rifle Association and the Kansas State Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
That was just eight days after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
The NRA program, known as "Eddie Eagle," is specifically geared toward children in kindergarten through eighth grade. It focuses on teaching children what they should do if they ever encounter an unattended firearm: stop; don't touch; run away; tell an adult.
The new package unveiled Tuesday, however, would not require that curriculum programs be based on any specific program, but instead would allow schools to use any "evidence-based" program to teach gun safety.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, described the $5 million for grants to be administered by the Department of Education as a "starting point" in a discussion about how much it will cost to secure school buildings in Kansas, but he said no one knows yet whether that will be enough.
"One thing that we quickly recognized when we started talking about this initiative was that there isn't a total inventory of where the deficiencies or the gaps in security and safety exist within public schools in Kansas, but that's the benefit of this grant program is that those deficiencies will come to light."
By comparison, the Lawrence school district alone spent roughly $5 million out of its $92.5 million bond issue in 2013 to beef up security and technology in all of its buildings.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called the Republican proposal a significant shift in the GOP's previous position on school safety and a step in the right direction.
"The first thing I see on this is how far the Republican leadership has come, and that’s a testament to the power of those high school and college kids demanding gun safety and the ‘enough is enough’ attitude," Ward said in a separate interview. "This is a huge movement from where they were just a week ago or 10 days ago."
He added, though, that he thinks lawmakers still need to consider enacting tighter restrictions on gun ownership in Kansas to fully address the issue of school safety.
"If you really want to increase safety in schools, you have to restrict the number of guns that are in schools, including colleges," he said. "This is a big step forward, but that’s ultimately how you’re going to make kids safer in schools."