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Legislatively Speaking

Lena C. Taylor

In the middle of my committee meeting this week, the absurdity of the mask mandate was on full display. Funny thing is that the word “mask” or “mandate” were never uttered. The issue was not a part of the bills being discussed in the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety public hearing. Let me explain.

With each new school year, we worry about a critical incident or shooting. According to Everytown Gun Safety group, so far this year, there have been at least 43 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 12 deaths and 19 injuries nationally. Most schools were closed during the first half of the year due to the health pandemic. I was floored when I read the group’s findings and wondered what we could expect for the remainder of 2021.

Each year we ask the same questions. How do we stop these situations or minimize the harm or loss of life, if they occur? In pursuit of an answer or solutions, school districts are trying a variety of strategies from “hardening” schools, installing panic buttons, to allowing teachers to carry guns in classrooms. In fact, as of Jan. 1, 2020, 28 states allow schools to arm teachers or staff, in at least some cases or as part of a specific program. This is done in the name of keeping students and staff safe.

SB Bill 449, the bill we heard in committee, had bi-partisan authors and cosponsors. It was introduced to enhance the safety of students, faculty and first responders, in the event of a critical incident at a school. Specifically, the bill relates to grants to schools to provide critical incident mapping data to law enforcement agencies.

The bill is aimed at modernizing the information we have on school facilities and how we share that information in an emergency. Right now, first responders to a school emergency, like an active shooter, rely on building blueprints to help them know the layout or map of a building. What we’ve found is frequently, with renovations and updates, blueprints can be outdated.

Mapping data systems can provide information to first responders, including tactical pre-plans, satellite and geospatial imagery, interior and exterior photos, floor plans, staging areas, hazardous materials, utility shut-offs and evacuation routes. Law enforcement and fire departments would use more accurate information to minimize harm or death of those inside school buildings.

Equally important, the bill provides a mechanism to assist in funding this mapping. There have been state legislatures that have passed similar proposals since 2007. Unfortunately, some have not been implemented because of funding problems for the school districts. We addressed that issue and it was evident from all those that testified that we were doing the right thing to protect our students with this bill.

Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in the room are against a mask mandate in schools, but could easily vote for this bill in the name of student safety. How many could easily vote for a gun in a classroom, but not a piece of fabric, in the name of student safety?

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