FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Law enforcement officers would be required to carry weapons when assigned to provide security at schools, under legislation that won final approval from Kentucky lawmakers on Friday.
The measure passed the House, 78-8, after a lengthy debate, sending the bill to Gov. Andy Beshear. It previously passed the Senate.
It's a follow-up to last year's sweeping school safety law, which did not specify whether school police officers needed to carry a weapon.
The new bill also aims to bolster school counseling, a widely supported proposal. But requiring the school-based officers to carry guns sparked disagreements.
Supporters said arming the officers, known as school resource officers, would strengthen school safety. Republican Rep. Matthew Koch said that “evil exists in this world" and the armed officers would stand as the “last line of defense" against it at schools.
“You can never, ever as a leader ask someone to run into harms way to save you without being properly armed," he said.
Opponents countered that the decision on arming school-based officers should be left up to local districts.
“I'm concerned about armed officers in our schools," said Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner of Louisville. “I hear from students in my district who say that the presence of even a police car in their parking lot when they come into school makes them feel like they're not going to school, but that they're going to some sort of dangerous institution."
The issue has also sparked debate in the state's largest school district. In Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, the local school board has been divided over whether to arm officers while crafting plans for a district-managed police force.
Speaking for the bill, Republican Rep. John Blanton said school resource officers can build relationships with students who view law enforcement unfavorably.
“These SROs can help build that bond, take away that fear to realize that they're human beings and they're there to protect them, not cause them harm," he said.
Noting that armed officers are assigned to the state Capitol, Republican Rep. C. Ed Massey said: “Why should our children have any less protection?"
Before sending the bill to the governor, the Republican-dominated House voted down a pair of amendments, including one that would have required school officers to wear body cameras.
Republican Sen. Max Wise, the bill's lead sponsor, hailed the bill's final passage, calling it “a continuation of the General Assembly’s efforts to increase safety within our school walls."
Beshear's office said in a statement that the governor “believes every child should be safe at school" and said he will review the measure once it reaches his desk.
The school safety efforts are in response to the 2018 shooting at Marshall County High School in western Kentucky, where two 15-year-old students, Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, were killed and more than a dozen others were injured when another student opened fire.
Last year's law was intended to boost police protection and counseling and increase physical security of school campuses, but came with no money. Lawmakers put off funding decisions until considering a new state budget this year. Beshear's recent budget proposal includes $18.2 million in bond funding to finance safety upgrades at schools.
The safety law also set the goal of having at least one counselor for every 250 students. The new legislation would widen the scope to include social workers as well as school-based psychologists. Even so, reaching that goal would require much more state funding. One estimate put the price tag for implementing last year's law at $121 million.
The legislation is Senate Bill 8.