February 11, 2020

School Safety Requires a More Comprehensive Approach Than Armed Guards

Emanuelle Sippy

Last year’s Senate Bill 1, now known as the School Safety and Resiliency Act, was the result of an inter-generational effort to strengthen school safety. A member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team served on the School Safety Working Group and invited other students to share testimony and research with the group as they conceived the legislation.


Once the working group adjourned, the Student Voice Team remained in dialogue with the sponsors Sen. Max Wise and Rep. Bam Carney, who showed sincere commitment to integrating students in the legislative process. Our team worked to ensure that the legislation reflected the multifaceted nature of safety, including not only physical but also emotional, social, and intellectual dimensions.


Although we laid the groundwork for a more robust conception of safety, policymakers must provide the resources to realize it in practice. The act mandates a myriad of supports, and while many schools have already implemented metal detectors, locked doors, and identification badges, tending to the emotional, social, and intellectual elements appear more challenging to institute. And without a renewed commitment from our legislature, I fear they won’t be implemented at all.


I feel safe when my counselor knows me well enough to anticipate what I’m going to say before I say it. I feel safe when educators say “Hello” in the hallway, express an interest in having a conversation, recognize me for more than my GPA, and see my achievements beyond the scantron.


Safety is not a 10-point plan or a set of boxes we can check. Safety is about relationships and communication, cultivating a sense of belonging, community, and a nurturing environment. Furthermore, students perceive safety through the lens of their own experience, both within school buildings and in our communities beyond them.


If policymakers intend for the School Safety and Resiliency Act to be comprehensive, it must institutionalize opportunities for proactive feedback at school, district, and state levels. The inclusion of a single student in the working group was an earnest effort; however, educator, student, and parent voices are a crucial part of an ongoing process.


This legislative session, the House and Senate must fund and enact the less tangible components of these statutes—the part of the plan made possible through staff who relate to us, who empathize with us, and who are trained to help us, the part of the plan that includes staff, student, and parent representation, and the amendment that recommends students serve on their school climate and culture committees. All of these components, if funded and supported, will make me feel much safer than metal detectors or armed school resource officers (SROs).


Senate Bill 8, which revises some of the statutes from 2019’s Senate Bill 1 and includes a requirement that SROs carry firearms, is now on its way to the governor’s desk. According to many of its sponsors, this fact is enough to keep us safe, as they will be thoroughly trained.


Unfortunately, no amount of training will make up for ratios of students to counselors that are almost twice what they should be. While teachers and other school staff should be supported to implement social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care, these programs are designed to recognize student needs that only counselors and mental health professionals are fully equipped to address. What will make students safer is knowing that when we need to talk to a behavioral health professional, one will be available. Adding to the responsibilities of others—whether educators, administrators, or officers—is a band-aid solution, and the holistic recognition of safety already embedded in the act demonstrates that we can do better.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is an independent, youth-led, statewide organization that supports students as research, policy, and advocacy partners to ensure Kentucky’s education system is as equitable, just, and as excellent as it can be. Until 2021, it was part of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary.

Emanuelle Sippy is a junior at Henry Clay High School and the student director of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. 


This op-ed originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Emanuelle Sippy is a junior at Henry Clay High School and the student director of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. 


This op-ed originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader.