School security became a priority Thursday for both Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol, as leaders announced a nonpartisan task force of experts would examine how to make Oklahoma schools the safest in the nation.
“The events that happened last Friday impacted everybody,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said. “After what I saw on TV, I just wanted to go home, hug my children and be thankful for the precious children that we have … We want to make sure we're doing everything within our power to make sure that our schools are as safe as possible.”
A 20-year-old gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and slaughtered 20 children and six adults Friday, sending the nation into a flurry of talk about gun control and how to make children safe in schools.
This week, Oklahoma lawmakers have proposed allowing teachers certified with law enforcement training to carry guns on campuses or allowing schools to issue bonds — by increasing local taxes — to hire additional security on campuses.
No single plan is being endorsed at the moment, said Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, who will head the Oklahoma Commission on School Security, but rather it will be presented to a panel of experts.
Lamb and Bingman announced the commission Thursday alongside House Speaker-elect T.W. Shannon. Not attending the conference but supportive of the plan were Democratic leaders, Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage and House Minority Leader Scott Inman.
“We've agreed to work for safer and securer schools together and we want to make sure this is a nonpartisan issue,” said Bingman, R-Sapulpa.
The plan is to address both school security and the mental health needs of the state.
Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday after a budget meeting that, in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, she will look at improving funding for mental health programs.
“I'm excited that the lieutenant governor, the speaker and the pro tem have formed an ad hoc group that's going to look at how we can make sure we're doing everything we can to keep our schools safe,” she said.
Lamb, a former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, will lead the commission.
He said the commission will contain experts from fields such as law enforcement, mental health and education, as well as parents and first responders. It will not have any legislators on the board, he said.
But while the commission looks at school security and mental health, it will not address gun control, he said.
“That vacuum is being filled on the federal level right now with gun control,” Lamb said. “This is a focus on school security.”
A look at funding
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, proposed granting school districts the ability to use bond issues to fund additional security officers in schools. Current law forbids the use of bond money to pay for personnel.
“Basically, we are giving communities the option to increase the safety of school districts, without the involvement of the state,” Dorman said in a news release.
In Oklahoma, school bond issues require at least a 60 percent majority vote for approval. The bond issues are paid for through property taxes.
“I know new taxes are not popular, but this would allow the local control of each school district to decide if this is an expense that is worthwhile,” Dorman said.
Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, proposed a plan to allow teachers who go through a six-week reserve officer training through CLEET (Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training) to be permitted to carry firearms on school campuses.
“The purpose of the proposal, though controversial, is fairly obvious: harden the soft targets that are our schools and protect our children from a Connecticut-style massacre,” he wrote in a statement about his proposal. He also pledged to participate in the ongoing conversation about what is necessary to protect the state's children.
Shannon, R-Lawton, said all proposals will be considered by the commission.
“We are going to have action and not reaction to the tragedy that took place in Newtown,” Shannon said. “The purpose of this commission is not to be reactionary like many lawmakers in Washington, D.C. It is to take serious, well-thought-out action that truly makes our children safe while defending our personal liberties at the same time.”