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Safety of Kentucky schools improving

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Kentucky School Advocate
October 2022

By Brenna R. Kelly
KSBA staff writer

After two students were shot and killed at Marshall County High School in January 2018, the state turned its attention to the safety of the Commonwealth’s schools.

Four and half years later, the killing of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, brought the issue of school safety back to the forefront and sparked renewed concern from Kentucky school board members, parents, students, teachers, administrators and lawmakers.

The good news, school safety experts say, is that the state’s schools are safer than they were three years ago – and the effort to improve school safety is continuing.  

“There’s so much more awareness now. And the fact that we have a law in place that requires so many different mandates,” said Ben Wilcox, Kentucky state school security marshal. “Now we’re practicing those mandates and putting them into use for the last three years and now it’s becoming not a compliance issue, but a commitment issue.”

The law that Wilcox and Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, credit with improving the safety of the Commonwealth’s schools is the School Safety and Resiliency Act of 2019.  

The law, which was passed in the wake of the Marshall County shooting, sought to harden schools by requiring cameras, locking doors and secure vestibules and other safety measures, and soften them by requiring threat assessments and improving mental health services.  


It also created the Office of the State School Security Marshal, housed at Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, where Wilcox leads 15 compliance officers who conduct on-site school safety assessments throughout the state.“It’s a strong mandate,” Wilcox said, “But we have always been in the business of, let’s help you get to where you need to be. We’re going to hold you accountable. We want to help you get to that point.”

The law, and subsequent legislation requiring school resource officers on each school campus, have made the state a national model for protecting students, Akers recently told lawmakers.

“I keep a phone log and, in that, I counted 15 different states that asked for copies of your Senate Bill 1,” Akers said while he and Wilcox discussed school safety at the legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education.


“No other state has a group of individuals like the marshal’s office here in the state of Kentucky,” Wilcox said. “We can put boots on the ground in a school and help a school with what they need mandate wise, but more importantly we have a relationship with the school. That principal can pick up a phone, call our office and they know the compliance officer by first name.”And when compliance officers find issues in a school, they ask the Center for School Safety to work with the school to help fix the problem, Wilcox said.

“They come in right behind us and they can assist those schools getting to where they need to be safety wise,” he said. “It is so important because we’ll come in one year, the next year those issues are fixed because they’ve been able to get with Jon’s group.”

Annual report shows progress          
The law requires the Marshal’s Office to issue a report each year on key measures of school safety. The office released its second report in September, based on the 2021-22 school year. The report shows that school security in the state is improving, Wilcox said.

“The biggest takeaway is that when it comes down to the stuff that we have absolute control over, we’re doing very well with it,” Wilcox said.

The report showed that all 1,275 schools now require visitors to report to the main office upon entry and 99.53% of Kentucky schools are compliant with the access control mandates.In the 2021 report, 94.61% of schools were equipped with doors could be locked from the outside but opened from the inside, this year it was 98.51%. Similarly, 92.46% of schools had classroom doors locked during instructional time while this year it was 98.9%.

Districts are still struggling with hiring school resource officers and school counselors, the report showed. Unlike the access control mandates, the legislature has not provided funding for SROs or counselors.

The School Safety and Resiliency Act sets a goal of 250 students per one counselor or mental health provider as personnel and funding allowed. But the report showed that just 44% of school districts met that goal. Statewide the ratio of counselors per student stands at 1:311, the previous school year it was 1:328.

House Bill 63 which took effect this summer required each school campus have an SRO by Aug. 1 and allows school districts to establish police departments. As of September, 51 percent of campuses had an SRO, Wilcox said. That was a 20 percent increase since the end of the 2020-21 school year, he said.Currently 57 of the 173 school districts are fully staffed with SROs, he said. (OSSSM counts the Kentucky School for the Blind and Kentucky School for the Deaf as a district and EKU Model School as a district.)

“Those without SRO coverage, almost all school districts claim the funding and lack of personnel was the issue,” he said.

Wilcox estimated that hiring an SRO for the remaining campuses would cost $25 million in salaries, not including benefits or equipment.

Many districts have been able to meet the requirements by contracting with local law enforcement and some have started their own police departments. Laurel County School recently formed its own department which now has 15 officers.

Bullitt County Schools, meanwhile, has said it cannot find candidates to fill its SRO positions.Robert Carter, safe schools coordinator for Hopkins County Schools, told 14News-TV that even though the district has met the requirement, he knows finding SROs is hard.

“We call them unicorns,” Carter said. “There are more school resource officer positions that are available across the Commonwealth of Kentucky than there are school resource officers available to fill them.”

Woodford County Schools formed its police department in 2018 and has had SROs in all of its schools since the 2018-19 school year. During a middle school basketball tournament game in February 2021, one of those officers, Scott Cottingham, took down an unruly fan who was carrying a gun as the man charged at him.

The school board later honored the officer, the janitor and administrators who kept students and fans safe.

A community concern            

With the incident still fresh, and a new school year beginning, Woodford school board chairwoman Dani Bradley organized a public school safety forum in September. It was the first joint meeting of the county’s school board, fiscal court and two city councils.

Kentucky Center for School Safety Director Jon Akers addresses the crowd at Woodford County Middle School during a Sept. 13 community forum on school safety. Board members Sherri Springate, Dani Bradley, Amanda Glass and Allison Richardson attended. 

“Shortly after the horrifying shooting in Uvalde our community was seeking reassurance that our school system was doing everything we could to protect our students,” she said. “I thought we needed to gather all of the agencies that commit resources to school safety and share as much as we could about safeguards we work together to create.”  Bradley said she wanted parents to be able to ask questions to those directly involved in providing security and show that the county stands together regarding school safety.

Akers, the Center for School Safety director who spoke at the meeting, commended the board for taking school safety seriously.

“I’ve been in 168 school districts across the state and I’ve never seen a meeting like this at all with all the representatives here really focusing on school safety,” he told the crowd.

Akers said he believes the county has a very safe school district because of its staff and their commitment to keeping students safe.

Superintendent Danny Adkins said the meeting was proof of that commitment.

Woodford County board chairwoman Dani Bradley speaks at the community forum she organized to allow the community to learn more about the district’s safety measures. 

“I think this is a testament to the dedication that we have to school safety,” said Adkins said. “We thank our parents that are here that are interested in knowing more about what we are doing.”Deputy Superintendent Garet Wells described the district’s physical safety measures, including piloting a new visitor management system, allowing police remote access to the schools’ cameras and designing the district’s new high school with safety in mind.

“But it’s not all about the hard safety that you put in a building,” he said. “Mental health for example, there’s a significant increase that we’ve seen over the past several years, but especially since the pandemic mental issues that we are dealing with have really skyrocketed. We already had counselors in all of our buildings, we had social workers, but that piece we were missing was that therapy piece.”

So, this school year the district has added two mental health therapists to help students, he said.

Heightened awareness            
While everyone cares about school safety soon after a local or national incident, the public’s attention typically quickly turns to the next issue, but Wilcox believes Kentucky’s school safety laws will protect the state from any waning interest in school safety.

“Anytime that we have an incident, we tend to heighten our awareness. And then we tend to go back to normal after a while,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s in law and that’s one of the reasons why we have a dedicated Office of the State School Security Marshal that comes around and reminds folks that we need to be in that position all the time.

“There’s a difference between policing yourselves or actually being policed by somebody. And that makes a huge difference.”

Principals and teachers are busy – and more and more is being asked of schools each year.

“There’s so much other stuff that has to be done,” he said “But when it comes down to it, the most important thing is keeping everybody safe. We have to do that first, then we can get to the other stuff. The difference between A and a B is nothing compared to the difference between life and death.”

Safe Schools Week
The Kentucky Center for School Safety’s Kentucky Safe Schools Week is Oct. 16- 22. This year’s theme is “Create a Ripple Effect” focusing the fact that no act is ever too small to make an impact. When you create a difference in someone’s life, you not only impact their life, you impact everyone influenced by them throughout their lifetime. Learn more at kycss.org.

Safety & security recommendations for 2022-23 (Source: Office of State School Security Marshal 2021-22 Annual Report)
    Work toward 100% compliance with School Safety and Resiliency Act mandates.
    Work toward the goal of one mental health professional for every 250 students.
    Work toward assigning a full-time, certified school resource officer to every campus.
    Foster a school climate where students and staff affirm the importance of controlling access to exterior doors, as well as
    locking classroom doors during instructional time.  
    All school staff who have contact with students complete the mandatory response to active shooter training and update the
    best plan of action to protect students and staff.  
    Ensure schools have the most up-to-date emergency operations plan which includes consultation with first responders and
    procedures for reunification.
    Ensure all classroom doors with windows are equipped with blackout material to cover the windows during a lockdown.
    Train all front office staff to use electronically locking door, camera and intercom systems. Train staff on the proper way to
    check-in a visitor, ensure proper ID is shown, and learn reason for the visit.

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