Senate panel weighs bills to prevent school violence

By: Steve Lash Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer March 23, 2018

 

ANNAPOLIS – With the sting of a Maryland teenager’s on-campus shooting death still fresh, a Senate committee Friday heard testimony on legislation to mandate that each school board form a team of experts to assess safety threats, require a safety officer at every public school and ensure local police chiefs to have a role in approving gun purchases.

 

Sen. Stephen M. Waugh, a main sponsor of the legislation, said the proposals are not “silver bullets” to end school violence but added his hope that “each component will buy down the risk a certain amount.”

 

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee’s hearing on Waugh’s three bills came just hours the death of 16-year-old Jaelynn Rose Willey, who was shot Tuesday at Great Mills High School by classmate Austin Rollins, according to St. Mary’s County police. Rollins was also killed, either by a self-inflicted gunshot or by a security officer at the school, police said.

 

The hearing also came just one day before marches in Washington and other cities are scheduled to be held by people demanding stronger laws, regulations, policies and attention be placed on curbing school violence. These marches were spurred most immediately by the slaying of 17 people Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a mass-killing that also spurred Waugh’s legislation.

 

Waugh, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, told the Senate committee that legislative inaction amid the recent violence would means “you are just a witness … and that’s not somewhere were anybody wants to be.”

 

Under Senate Bill 1263, Baltimore and each county school board would have to establish a “Threat Assessment Team” with policies on assessing student behavior and intervening when a student’s behavior indicates a safety threat. The policies would have to contain procedures for referring the student to law enforcement or health care providers for evaluation and treatment.

 

The teams would be comprised of experts in student counseling, school administration and law enforcement and would provide guidance to student and staff on recognizing and reporting threatening student behavior. The teams would meet monthly during the school year to review potential safety threats.

 

If it concludes a student poses a violent threat, the team would be required to tell the county superintendent and may also report the student to local law enforcement. The superintendent would be required to notify the student’s parent or guardian of the threat assessment.

 

Waugh told the committee the teams’ purpose is to “identify young kids who are in trouble” and react to “early signals and warnings.” Such a team could have identified suspected Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz prior to the killing spree, Waugh said, based on an online video in which Cruz said he wanted to be a professional school shooter and might have identified Rollins as a student to be watched.

 

“These are only probabilities,” Waugh added. “There are no certainties in this at all.”

 

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, the Senate committee’s vice chair, voiced concern the threat assessment teams would target students based not on their suspicious behavior but on their impoverished or troubled family histories.

 

“There are a lot of traumatized kids” who pose no threat to anyone, said Kelley, D-Baltimore County. “I am concerned that school will be a police state” where these children will be “watched, followed, clinically analyzed,” she added.

 

Waugh responded his legislation is intended to foster ideas to improve school safety and he is open to more appropriate “risk mitigation measures.”

 

SB 1263 would also require each public school to have mental health counseling services on campus, and a counselor would be required to meet with each student once each school year in a private, exclusive setting. The bill is co-sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s.

 

Another bill, SB 1264, would require each public school to have an armed security officer on campus during regular school hours. If a security officer is unavailable, the Maryland State Police would have to assign a trooper to the school. Miller and Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, D-Baltimore and Harford counties, are Waugh’s co-sponsors.

 

SB 1262, meanwhile, would require the head of the Maryland State Police to request assistance from the police chief in the applicant’s jurisdiction in deciding whether to grant an application to buy, rent or transfer a gun. Current law does not require such local assistance. Miller and Sen. John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel, are Waugh’s co-sponsors on the bill.