SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah commission to protect students from school shootings formed in record time over the past two weeks.
The Utah School Safety Commission is dedicated to finding good policies to fight one of the most pressing issues the nation is facing: gun violence against school children. Legislators, law enforcement, an architect, a gun lobbyist, teachers, mental health experts, researchers and educators make up the commission.
President of the Utah Education Association Heidi Matthews said, “One of the most exciting things I see happening right now is the movement of our students demanding that the adults make policy changes and keep them safe. We need to answer that and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Rep. Mike Kennedy said he recognized the need to act after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 14, where a former student open fired and killed 17 people.
“The tragedy … that happened in Parkland, Florida, is certainly going to stimulate a deep desire in many of us to respond to the sort of tragic event,” Kennedy said in a press conference March 1. “The question that we all must ask is, ‘How do we respond in an effective way that is useful and going to really protect our children?’”
Kennedy said he wasn’t sure what the solutions are going to be, but he is confident the School Safety Commission does.
“We need to consider technology and architecture,” Kennedy said. “We need to consider the psyche of the individuals as well as how we approach the processes.”
Kennedy said the Utah School Safety Commission is not a political effort.
“This is an effort for us all to come together — all of us for Utah school safety,” Kennedy said.
Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes said he believes the commission will be able to put a bill together quickly and get it passed in the legislature, even if that means calling a special session.
“We need stakeholders that might have been traditionally seen on opposite sides of an issue to understand that we are trying to improve our human condition,” Hughes said. “We are trying to help people and we can only do it together.”
Hughes stressed the importance of the commission finding traction as quickly as possible.
Kennedy said the commission has already met to discuss solutions and will continue to do so. The specifics of the ideas will not be publicized, but Kennedy said, “Our objective is to decide where we are and also where we’ve been and what are other states are doing too.”
BYU sociology professor John Hoffman spent the last 25 years doing research on problematic adolescent behaviors. He said the way the commission goes about finding solutions is vital.
“We want this process to be evidence based, to be based on (the) best research that’s out there on school safety, on how to keep students safe in schools as well as in the neighborhoods,” Hoffman said.
Commissioner Keith Squires of the Utah Department of Public Safety said he is honored to be a part of the opportunity to bring different perspectives together to talk about a controversial topic.
“There are the opportunities there that could come forward, some that we haven’t even heard yet that may make sense and may make a difference in something that so many of us care about,” Squires said.
The commission hopes to push forward a bill file opened two weeks ago by Rep. Steve Handy, Layton.
The bill is called “Extreme Risk Protective Order.” Five states already have the bill and 18 others are looking to adopt it. If passed, the bill would remove firearm possession from extremely risky individuals.
“It’s not a gun bill per say, it’s about public safety and public health, and will provide some additional tools in the toolbox in these extreme situations,” Handy said.
Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw of Utah State Hospital said we shouldn’t associate mental illness with gun violence.
“I really hope that as we study this issue we can clear up some of the myths and some of the lack of information and lack of understanding of mental illness,” Earnshaw said, stressing the importance of finding ways to help young people with mental illness that might be falling through the cracks.
Terryl Warner from the State Board of Education said she wants to make sure everyone who walks through school doors is safe. That is the priority driving the Utah School Safety Commission forward.
The commission is also looking for two high school students to join the council.