School safety bills highlight differences between Dems, GOP

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington lawmakers showcased a package of school safety bills Tuesday amid a broader debate over how to improve school safety and prevent mass shootings.

At the center of Democratic proposals was a pair of bills that would create safety centers dedicated to offering schools training and real-time support for struggling students, along with expanding extreme risk orders to include youth, and add mental health professionals in schools.

Some Republicans favor measures that focus on increasing police presence in schools and arming staff, including teachers. But Democrats, who hold the majority in both the House and Senate, rejected the idea.

“We believe that guns do not belong in schools,” said Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia.

Dolan is the sponsor of one of the pair of bills proposing the safety centers, including regional centers located in each of the state’s nine Educational Service Districts. They would be able to both help schools with ongoing needs like training, and respond in real time to help with threat assessments and responding to emergencies.

Among the speakers supporting the idea was Alisa Parker, whose daughter, Emilie, was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Parker, who now lives in Washington, said creating the safety centers was the most important step lawmakers could take to improve school security.

Along with the safety centers, proposals included in the Democratic package would also add more mental health staff at schools, expand extreme risk protection orders to apply to minors, allowing courts to obligate parents to keep guns out of reach of youths during a mental health crisis, and add mental health training for police officers working as school resource officers.

Some proposals from GOP legislators overlapped with those ideas.

Republicans have suggested mental-health related initiatives for schools, but along different lines: A proposal from state Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, would provide schools with remote access to mental health care providers through “tele-health’ technology.

And Sen. Steve O’Ban, a Republican active on mental health issues in the chamber, proposed requiring more advanced threat assessment programs in schools, along with a pair of bills expanding training for school resource officers and making minors eligible for extreme risk protection orders. Both share elements with the Democratic proposals.

Asked about the Democratic measures, O’Ban emphasized that he saw common ground on the core idea: addressing student mental health as a way of preventing mass shootings.

But other Republican proposals have less in common with the mental health focus laid out Tuesday.

Rep. Jim Walsh, a Republican from Aberdeen who has taken a leading role on the issue for his party in the state House, has introduced bills that would fund placing a police officer in every school in the state, encourage schools to use anti-shooter designs like limited access points and allow teachers and school staff to carry concealed guns of their own after special training.

“They don’t do anything to harden campuses,” Walsh said of the Democratic proposals. “If you really want to make schools more secure, you have to harden them as targets.”

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