The Commercial Appeal

Gov. Lee’s bill threatens penalties for unlocked school entrances

- Marta W. Aldrich

Gov. Bill Lee is proposing sweeping changes to enhance school safety across Tennessee, requiring all K-12 public schools to keep their exterior doors locked, or risk losing escalating amounts of state funding with each violation.

Legislatio­n from the Republican governor, introduced this week in several legislativ­e committees, also mandates several new safety-related drills when students aren’t present; tweaks training requiremen­ts for armed and unarmed campus officers; and requires new security features for school buildings constructe­d or remodeled after this July 1.

In addition, Lee wants more top law enforcemen­t officials on the state’s school safety team and proposes to transfer its oversight from the Department of Education to the Department of Safety, the agency responsibl­e for homeland security and state troopers.

The governor’s proposal comes after the state fire marshal’s office identified 527 unlocked exterior doors during inspection­s of about 1,500 Tennessee public schools this school year, according to state officials.

Last June, Lee signed an executive order directing Tennessee school leaders and law enforcemen­t to work together to double down on existing school safety protocols after a deadly shooting in Texas, where a gunman entered an elementary school through an unlocked door and killed 19 children and two teachers.

Lee also promised Tennessean­s that state troopers and local police would conduct more unannounce­d security inspection­s of schools to make sure entrances are locked to prevent unauthoriz­ed access. More than 20,000 doors have been checked so far, state officials said.

Lee plans no new limits on firearms

Lee’s plan would continue Tennessee’s emphasis on fortifying its school campuses rather than reducing its number of firearms.

Despite having one of the nation’s highest rates of gun deaths, the state has enacted numerous laws under Lee’s leadership to loosen requiremen­ts for gun ownership. In 2021, he signed a law allowing most Tennessean­s 21 and older to carry handguns without first clearing a background check, obtaining a permit, or getting trained on firearms safety.

This year, however, the governor’s administra­tion is opposing several new bills from Republican lawmakers who want to loosen those regulation­s even further.

The new safety legislatio­n fulfills a promise Lee made at his state address last month. “We’ve done a lot to make schools safer,” he said, “but I don’t want to look up months from now and think we should’ve done more.”

His proposal, outlined in a 14-page amendment, would require schools to keep all external doors locked when students are present and to limit access through one secure, primary entrance.

The legislatio­n authorizes state and local law enforcemen­t officers to inspect doors — and requires immediate actions to address any infraction­s. Written notificati­ons describing violations must be sent within 24 hours to the school’s administra­tors, district leaders, the parentteac­her organizati­on, and state officials in the department­s of education and safety.

If a campus does not have a law enforcemen­t officer on site and violates the locked door requiremen­ts two or more times in a school year, local school officials would have to post a full-time officer there within 30 days of receiving notice and undertake a corrective action plan. If they do not comply, the legislatio­n directs Tennessee’s education commission­er to withhold 2% of its annual state funds, escalating by 2% for each subsequent violation, up to 10%.

A campus that has a full-time officer faces similar financial penalties for its district or charter organizati­on if it violates the locked door requiremen­ts.

“To be clear, the purpose of this proposal is to help schools resolve any security flaws and ensure students and teachers are safe,” said Jade Byers, the governor’s press secretary, in a statement to Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “School funding will only be temporaril­y withheld while the (district) takes corrective action to resolve the issue.”

School officials want a less punitive approach

Tennessee school leaders have lauded the governor’s prioritiza­tion of school safety and, in recent years, taken advantage of millions of dollars in state grants to upgrade building security and hire law enforcemen­t for their campuses. For instance, a grant program championed by the governor in 2019 placed more than 200 SROS in schools.

But they say that more money is needed to hire more officers — and that the governor’s proposal doesn’t address their staffing challenges.

According to the state’s most recent school safety report, for the 2021-22 school year, fewer than 1,300 of the state’s 1,800-plus schools had a trained school resource officer, or SRO, on site.

“The attention and focus on keeping our schools safe is appreciate­d, but financial penalties will not help add the security measures needed,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superinten­dents organizati­on, which has lobbied for enough funding so every Tennessee school has an SRO.

Money isn’t the only challenge that districts face, according to Mike Winstead, director of Maryville City Schools, near Knoxville.

“One of the punishment­s under this bill is that you might have to hire an SRO within 30 days, but that’s easier said than done,” he said. “Many districts across our state have tried to secure SROS from their local police department­s, but there’s a shortage of personnel. Police are losing a lot of officers to the federal government, where they can triple their salary.”

Lee also proposes to add annual drills — without students present — for emergency bus safety, and also to prepare school staff and law enforcemen­t agencies on what to expect in an emergency situation at a school.

State law already requires schools to conduct periodic fire drills and annual armed-intruder drills, plus three additional annual drills to prepare for potential emergencie­s such as an earthquake or tornado.

Altogether, the legislatio­n serves as “an additional meaningful step to secure schools and further enhance school safety,” said Byers, the governor’s spokeswoma­n.

But striking the right balance between school safety and educationa­l climate is also a concern, says Winstead, a 2018 finalist for national superinten­dent of the year.

“We want our schools to be friendly and welcoming to students and their families,” said Winstead, “and we don’t want to make our kids feel like they’re going to school in a prison.”

He says collaborat­ive working relationsh­ips between school officials and law enforcemen­t are more productive than punitive ones. He’d also like to see more state investment­s to support student mental health beyond the governor’s $250 million student mental health trust fund, establishe­d in 2021 as an endowment to pay for future services.

“Drills are important, SROS are important,” said Winstead, “but the most important thing we can do is foster strong relationsh­ips between students and adults.”

You can track the bill’s progress on the legislatur­e’s website.

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 ?? STEPHANIE AMADOR / THE TENNESSEAN ?? Gov. Bill Lee is proposing requiring all K-12 public schools to keep their exterior doors locked or risk losing state funding.
STEPHANIE AMADOR / THE TENNESSEAN Gov. Bill Lee is proposing requiring all K-12 public schools to keep their exterior doors locked or risk losing state funding.

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