We intend to introduce a student health and safety package of legislation in the 2019 session that addresses school safety and student health in a holistic, comprehensive and common-sense manner.
As a new school year begins, one issue remains high on every parent’s mind — keeping our kids safe. With so many high-profile tragedies last year, it’s heartbreaking but understandable that many students don’t feel safe in their classrooms. Current surveys show more than one third of parents fear for their children’s safety in school — the highest rate since the nation grappled with the Columbine, Colorado, shootings two decades ago.
That must change. It is our job as lawmakers to make sure every student has access to a healthy, safe and supportive learning environment — and every parent feels comfortable sending them to school.
Over the summer, Senate and House Democrats reached out to educators, parents, law enforcement, students and others with expertise in school safety to develop comprehensive solutions. We took a hard look at policies already in place in Washington, gaps in these policies and best practices we can learn from other states.
As chair of the Senate’s K-12 Education Committee, I traveled the state to speak directly with educational leaders in each of our nine Educational Service Districts about issues in their communities. I wanted to know about the challenges they face as well as what works in their communities that we can possibly expand statewide.
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I heard how every region struggles to provide students with necessary mental-health support and interventions. Specifically, I heard about increasing suicide rates among students. It remains the No. 1 cause of death in our state for ages 10-14. I also heard of a need for better coordination and communication at the state level.
Currently, state lawmakers are following the Mass Shootings Work Group tasked with delving into the issue of school safety. This group is exploring strategies for responding to and preventing gun violence at both our K-12 schools and higher-education institutions. The group includes law enforcement, civil-rights and mental-health advocates, with recommendations due to the Legislature in December.
We intend to introduce student health and safety legislation in the 2019 session. The details won’t completely emerge until we fully hear from teachers, principals, superintendents, law enforcement, parents and students. They are the ones tasked with implementing these changes, and we want to be certain new policy reflects the input received. In short, we want these policies to work in practice.
Thus far, we have identified several areas where we can address school safety and student health in a holistic, comprehensive and common-sense manner. We plan to focus on policies that address:
- Increased mental-health counseling and support within our educational system.
- The appropriate use of school resource officers, including consideration of expertise and training, economic feasibility, liability and overall effectiveness.
- Making sure our smaller, more remote districts have access to the safety resources they need.
- Improving the ability of educators to recognize alarming behavior and potential threats through the implementation of a threat assessment system in every district. Used in a number of other states and a few districts here in Washington, the system is a tool to empower a district or community and often involves a team that includes teachers, mental-health professionals, law enforcement and others.
- The possibilities of increased use of restorative discipline that fosters belonging over exclusion within our schools in order to create healthy, positive learning environments where students feel safe rather than isolated. We should address bad behavior head on, not ostracize these kids.
- Strengthening communication and coordination within state, local and federal agencies, ensuring officials at all levels are engaged in school safety and working together.
- Safety measures for new schools and renovations for other schools.
We look forward to continuing our partnership with teachers, principals, superintendents, law enforcement, parents and students to fine-tune the details of this package of bills. Together, we can create a safer environment and healthier conditions for Washington’s 1.1 million students.