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Ky. Senate passes bill allowing armed 'guardians' in schools

Senate Bill 2 sponsor Republican Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville said districts explains his legislation to allow for so-called guardians in schools on the Senate floor
Sylvia Goodman
Senate Bill 2 sponsor Republican Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville explains his legislation to allow for so-called guardians in schools on the Senate floor on Tuesday March 5, 2024.

As many schools struggle to hire school resource officers, a bill to create a new force of armed veterans and retired police officers passes the Senate.

Kentucky schools could bring in designated armed veterans and retired police officers to patrol campuses under a measure that passed a Senate floor vote Tuesday.

The so-called guardians would receive some training, although at a lower level than school resource officers, and could work on a paid or volunteer basis. Senate Bill 2 sponsor Republican Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville said districts that are struggling to find school resource officers need an alternative.

“In no way is the guardian replacing the important role that our school resource officers are doing for our school systems,” Wise said. “They are simply a stopgap measure to help a school district that right now may not be able to provide an SRO.”

Democrats said they were concerned the legislation would result in more firearms at schools without addressing the root causes of gun violence — namely the guns themselves.

“How could we deal with the gun problem that we have here in this state? And in America? Our answer is 'Let’s put more guns in schools, not less,'” said Sen. Reginald Thomas, a Democrat from Lexington. “Because this country refuses to do anything about gun violence, there are going to be more school shootings, not less.”

Thomas pointed to Senate Bill 13, which would create a legal process to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. He said he was disappointed the chamber would consider legislation to increase the number of firearms in schools rather than take steps to avoid tragedies before they happen.

The Republican who proposed SB13, Sen. Whitney Westerfield from Fruit Hill also voted against the guardians bill. Westerfield said while he appreciated the intent, but didn’t believe the legislation was ready to move forward.

Westerfield said the bill does not explain who guardians would report to in a crisis situation, and does not spell out their specific duties within a school.

“While I want to give these districts that option, one of my districts reached out and said, ‘I'm concerned that this leaves some questions unanswered,’ and it again delays our investment in the SROs,” Westerfield said.

Westerfield encouraged his fellow lawmakers to instead focus on funding school resource officers before looking for potentially problematic alternatives. A 2022 bill requires that all schools have a school resource officer, but the mandate is unfunded and many schools still are unableto hire enough.

The bill passed 28-10, with three Republicans joining Democrats to vote against the measure. It will now move to the House for consideration.

The GOP dissenters include Sen. Danny Carroll from Benton, who has a background in law enforcement. He previously said the bill doesn’t adequately address how or if guardians would be involved in the more common school conflicts, like fights between students.

Guardians under the bill would have to complete a background check, a medical exam, a drug test, a psychological suitability battery, firearm proficiency tests, and the course requirements for a level I school resource officer, including active shooter response training.

But Democratic Sen. Robin Webb from Grayson said she was still concerned that the qualifications didn’t speak to the duties involved with patrolling a school building and interacting with children regularly.

“We don't require training for these individuals who may not have been trained in law enforcement officer procedures — discipline versus crime, community policing — those things that I think are important to put in a school environment when you're communicating with children,” Webb said.

SB 2 also mandates two suicide prevention lessons per school year for grades 6-12, along with suicide prevention trainings for school staff who work with grades 4 and up. It creates reporting requirements so the state government can better understand the mental health needs of school-age kids, Wise said.

“This bill only establishes and creates an additional layered approach to student safety while providing resources and collaboration amongst our mental health community and our school security and our law enforcement community,” Wise said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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