Critics call Kansas House GOP’s school safety plan weak

March 10, 2018

In this Tuesday, March 6, 2018 photo, Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., right, R-Olathe, accompanied by House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, outlines a package of school safety initiatives in a news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Mitchell Willetts)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas responded to the mass Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school by drafting legislation to mandate safety standards for schools and provide state funds to school districts for training and security upgrades.

But educators and other legislators are skeptical. They say the new spending is not enough and argue that the House GOP leaders who drafted the plan are ducking a core issue by not proposing gun control measures.

The bill would require the State Board of Education to impose statewide safety standards for securing school entrances and windows, using cameras and other equipment to detect intruders, having communications links with law enforcement, training staff and conducting drills for students. The State Department of Education would review the safety plans adopted by the 286 local school boards, and the state would set aside $5 million for grants to local schools for training and security upgrades.

“Five million dollars does nothing across this state to prevent the next mass shooting,” said Mark Desetti, the lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union. “We have to get commonsense gun laws passed, and Kansas has wide-open gun laws.”

Nevertheless, GOP leaders expect the bill to have broad support among Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. promised a comprehensive package of initiatives the week after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, when he and fellow GOP leaders canceled a debate on a bill designed to encourage public schools to offer gun-safety courses to their students. Some members were upset because the bill gave a preference to a National Rifle Association program.

“We built this around things we had a consensus on,” said Ryckman, a conservative Olathe Republican. “Making our buildings as safe as possible for our kids was something that unites all of us. It’s something that can be done right away.”

Ryckman said other House Republicans are working on proposals to boost state spending on mental health services.

“We need to be focusing more on what is available for mental health care,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Louisburg Republican.

Ryckman and other Kansas House Republicans outlined their proposals only days before Florida’s Legislature approved a $400 million school safety package. The Florida measure sets up a program for arming teachers, but it also contains gun-control measures opposed by the NRA, such as raising the age to buy rifles from 18 to 21.

Kansas has been one of the most welcoming states in recent years for gun-rights groups like the NRA and a testing-ground for initiatives to loosen restrictions on gun owners. Adults 21 and older can carry concealed guns without a state permit, and in 2010, an amendment to the state constitution reaffirming individual gun-ownership rights was approved with 88 percent of the vote.

The House GOP’s package includes a provision for encouraging public schools to offer gun-safety courses for their students. Its mentions the NRA’s 30-year-old Eddie Eagle Gunsafe program as an option.

Travis Couture-Lovelady, a former Kansas House member who now lobbies for the NRA, said it’s clear to all sides after the Florida shooting that “doing nothing is not an option.”

But, he added, “These emotional reactions toward banning things or changing an age don’t move us toward safer schools.”

Some educators said that local school districts already have been enacting their own security plans and taking steps to make their buildings more secure. For example, voters in the Kansas City, Kansas, school district authorized $235 million in bonds in 2016, and part of the money will be used to ensure that all schools have secured entrances.


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