OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gov. Mary Fallin signed four bills into law on Tuesday that are intended to make Oklahoma schools safer in the wake of last year's elementary school shooting in Connecticut, though several education officials said the laws may not accomplish much.
One of the new laws establishes a school safety institute within the state's Homeland Security Office to provide training for schools and police. The others slightly modify existing laws that require schools to run intruder drills, report all firearms found on campus and share their emergency plans with local emergency responders.
The proposals came from a committee convened by Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb to study school security after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. On Tuesday, Fallin said those shootings were a call to action for schools and parents.
"For the rest of the nation, the Sandy Hook tragedy was an unwelcome reminder that we must be vigilant in our efforts to ensure that our schools are safe and that they are well-prepared in emergency situations," the governor said during a formal bill-signing ceremony at the Capitol that included Lamb and other commission members.
But more than a dozen school officials and law enforcement officers, from the state's largest and smallest school districts, told The Associated Press that the laws won't make schools much safer because they already collaborate extensively with local emergency responders, hold lockdown drills and seek training from the state's Office of Homeland Security. Many said they have done so for years.
"So they're important, but we already do that," Ira Harris, superintendent of the 300-student Boise City Public School in Oklahoma's Panhandle, said Tuesday. "I don't want to beat my Legislature up, but it seems like they look for stuff to do sometimes."
The four proposals sailed through the Senate and the House, meeting near-universal praise as proactive ways to protect Oklahoma's children. A fifth recommendation from Lamb's school safety committee involves mental health services, and Lamb and other officials said they expect that need to be met through ongoing state budget negotiations.
At the bill signing, the lieutenant governor maintained the bills' provisions were meaningful.
"I would agree that some schools ... are performing these responsibilities already," Lamb said. "But not all schools are."
Several school officials took a similar stance, saying the bills could serve as a valuable starting point to draw attention to other school safety options and, they hoped, bring the funding to match.
"If we had funding to address safety needs — for instance, if we had the ability to have the buzz-in systems at the front door, cameras at the front door, cameras around the school, a double entrance ... that would be the best thing that we could have," Sandra Park, deputy superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, said last Thursday.
Referring to the Homeland Security training institute, Park added: "What I would say is that hopefully with the centralized center for us, it will lead to those measures for safety across all schools."
A separate bill inspired by recent school shootings would have allowed school districts to decide whether trained teachers could carry firearms in school. But that plan stalled because a Senate committee declined to give it a hearing April 1.
Rural superintendents expressed mixed feelings at the proposal's failure, noting emergency response times in their districts could be 20 to 30 minutes.
"If it wasn't against the law, I think our board would require it," said Harris, the Boise City superintendent, who called his Panhandle district the most remote in the state.
As for the four bills signed Tuesday, Harris said he at least appreciated the attention given to school safety.
"I can't fault anybody ... if they really, really are doing it for our children and not some political stance," he said.