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State lawmaker to push for more mental health resources to make schools safer

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- In 2019, education yet again will take center stage in the Washington Legislature.

Last year, the Legislature passed a historic measure pumping billions into education because of the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision ordering legislators to fully fund K-12 education. The funding centered around teacher compensation and academics.

In 2019 it will be the year of safety.

State Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, wants to find ways to harden schools physically but, more importantly, she wants to bring mental health to the forefront.

“Can’t think of anything more important in making sure our children are safe,” Wellman said.

That comes from a lawmaker who has a background in teaching.

“I did kindergarten and I did early learning,” Wellman said.

During the legislative break, Wellman has been researching by going back into the classrooms.

“You have to talk to teachers, (say) does this work for you?" Wellman said.

What she’s learned is that we need more mental health resources for children.

“In any case where we have had a violent situation, there has been somebody on campus -- children or staff -- that knew something wasn’t right ahead of time,” Wellman said.

Right now many schools are taking it upon themselves to train employees on how to identify a threat but Wellman wants the state to fund the training and make it a statewide requirement.

“Threat assessment so that everyone at school, all the teachers and staff, understand what to look for,” Wellman said.

A threat could mean a student who brings a gun to school or a student who is suicidal.

“In the state of Washington, 105 students a year are committing suicide,” Wellman said.

She says we need to start thinking outside the box to give students better access to mental health counselors or a psychiatrist because there is simply not enough of them at every school.

“Some psychiatrists are actually doing Skype meetings with people,” Wellman said.

But all these changes come with a price tag, possibly millions of dollars.

Wellman says the goal is to have a regional approach so that schools in rural areas can pull from resources as well.

“Can we do everything year one? No, we need to know where we are going. We need a map of prioritizing things that we need to do,” Wellman said.

Wellman also wants more school resource officers but she says some districts have made it clear that they don’t want an officer with a gun just guarding the school. She says all SRO’s should know how to de-escalate situations and work with kids with disabilities.

She says school safety is one of the top priorities for many lawmakers, so she believes the state will have a number of safety measures passed at the end of the 2019 legislative session.