School safety panel: Focus on mental health, police response

By JEFF AMY Associated Press

JACKSON • An anonymous reporting channel for threats against Mississippi schools, yearly safety inspections and twice-yearly active shooter drills at schools are all part of a safety proposal being backed by Gov. Phil Bryant.

The proposals come from a school safety task force convened last year by the Republican governor. The task force’s final report, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, is a two-pronged response focusing on mental health training and police response.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, a Brandon Republican who’s running for Attorney General, said he introduced House Bill 1283 , based on the task force report, at the request of the Bryant administration.

“If you will pass and fund the Mississippi Safe School Act, our parents, teachers and administrators will be allowed to care for our children in a safe and protected environment,” Bryant said in his State of the State address earlier this month.

Besides safety measures, the bill seeks to teach students how to manage stress and anxiety and to train teachers to recognize developing behavioral problems.

“What they are trying to do is show the impact of the mental health aspect, which many on the task force feel has been overlooked for several years.” said Bill Welch, director of the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Orderly Schools.

The highest-dollar recommendation in the bill is to hire a school resource officer for all 1,000-plus schools in the state. The state Department of Education says there are now 410 certified officers statewide.

Baker said the state could incentivize districts to hire more officers by expanding a grant program called Mississippi Community Oriented Policing Services in Schools. In December, the state Board of Education approved $10,000 grants for 177 officers, totaling $1.77 million. School districts must match the funds, but in reality, Welch said it costs about $50,000 in salary and benefits to hire a school resource officer.

The state set aside $5 million for the program in 2013-2014, when it was created in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But officials only disbursed about $2.2 million that year, in part because some districts said their officers didn’t fulfill all functions required in the program.

Baker wants to increase the value of the grants. He said more spending is needed, although he said he thought the state would need to spend less than $10 million.

The legislation doesn’t include a task force recommendation to train teachers or other school personnel to carry guns and act as “school marshals.” A similar proposal was part of a 2018 bill that died.

Baker said lawmakers could still choose to add such a proposal to this year’s bill, but said the Bryant administration wanted to focus on paid officers “as a permanent solution.”

Baker has also introduced a separate measure, House Bill 581 , that would make violent threats by social media or other means a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The task force called for such a law in its report. It’s a pared down version of a terroristic threat proposal that failed last year over concerns that people could be prosecuted for threats they didn’t seriously intend. Most students prosecuted under such a law would see charges brought in youth court, but prosecutors can seek to have teens 13 and older prosecuted as adults.

The bill calls for every school district to link to a threat-reporting website that would be monitored by three new analysts at the state Office of Homeland Security dedicated to tracking school threats. Baker said he wasn’t worried that school districts would be collecting information that could lead to criminal charges against students, saying task force members agreed on the need for information sharing.

“That info needs to be passed along,” Baker said. “What happens then, happens.”