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Utah lawmakers approve armed school security bill with $100 million funding boost

Rep. Ryan Wilcox speaks about his school safety bill at a news conference at the Utah Capitol on Feb. 20, 2024. To his left is Lori Alhadeff and to his right is Max Schachter, two parents of children who were killed in a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Martha Harris
Rep. Ryan Wilcox speaks about his school safety bill at a news conference at the Utah Capitol on Feb. 20, 2024. To his left is Lori Alhadeff and to his right is Max Schachter, two parents of children who were killed in a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The bill requires all schools to either have a school resource officer, an armed security guard, an armed and trained employee or “school guardian.”

Utah lawmakers have not only passed a requirement for armed security at every Utah school — they’ve dipped deeply into the state’s wallet to do it. After hearing concerns schools would be footing an expensive bill for the new safety requirements, lawmakers allocated $100 million in one-time funding.

The massive bill, almost 2,800 lines long, is the product of months of work done by Utah’s School Security Task Force.

It would establish several new safety standards for schools, including having a panic button in every classroom. It also gives the state security chief, a position created last year, new responsibilities.

But the piece that has received the most attention from the public and pushback is the “school guardian” program.

Each school would either need to have a school resource officer, an armed security guard or a “school guardian,” which would be a school employee who is armed and trained to respond to “active threats.” That employee can’t be a principal or teacher, unless there are only 100 students or less.

A substitute version of the bill passed the full Senate unanimously and the House concurred with those changes 63-9 on Feb. 28.


Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner said they responded to concerns from the education community that the potentially costly security requirements were an “unfunded mandate.” The previous iteration only had $4.26 million in ongoing funds and $1.36 million in one-time funding. It said school districts and charter schools could apply to the existing School Safety and Support Grant Program to pay for requirements like installing panic buttons

The passed bill now allocates $100 million in one-time funding to that grant program.

“I think we now have a bill that has the flexibility that we need, is no longer an unfunded mandate and will allow everyone to proceed with the kind of support and help they need to make sure our children are safe,” Millner said on the Senate floor.

How much money it will actually take to get schools up to the new code is not yet known. Some already have some of the required safety measures in place, while others do not.

Schools will be required to conduct a school safety needs assessment to identify their deficiencies, and grant funding will be awarded based on need. The bill also tasks the state security chief with establishing building and safety standards.

Millner and Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters that after hearing money concerns, they worked with school districts and seemed confident that the $100 million in one-time funding and $4.26 million in ongoing funds will be sufficient.

School guardians

In a Feb. 26 Senate Education Committee hearing, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, the bill sponsor, said it was his preference that each school have a school resource officer, meaning a law enforcement officer who works at a school or district.

In the absence of that, schools can either have an armed security guard or a volunteer “school guardian” to fulfill the requirement in the bill.

Wilcox told lawmakers that in one Utah high school, about two guns are confiscated from students every week. He didn’t name the school. In addition to the guns that shouldn’t be there, educators statewide are already legally carrying guns on school campuses with concealed firearm permits.

That’s why Wilcox said his bill is “not about adding more guns to schools. I promise you, they are already there.”

The goal, Wilcox said, is quicker response and intervention in an emergency situation.

One of the student members on Provo School District’s Board of Education, Will Weidner, told the committee that after talking with his peers, “we are not comfortable with armed volunteers in our schools.” He’d prefer the state give schools more funding so every school can have a school resource officer.

Floor sponsor Sen. Don Ipson said if there’s an active shooter at a school, “seconds, minutes count.”

How safe a student is at school depends on where they are in the state, Wilcox said, as some districts have more security than others.

His bill sets minimum safety and security standards for schools, both for their physical buildings and their protocols. It also requires that all school districts and first responder agencies use the same critical incident response protocol.

Support from Parkland parents

While working on this proposed legislation, Wilcox visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three staff members were killed in a 2018 shooting.

Two parents whose children were killed in that shooting have spoken at committee meetings and visited the Utah Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass this bill.

“We never thought it would happen in our community,” said Max Schachter, who lost his son Alex in the shooting. He warned that “it's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when and where the next school shooting will happen.”

Lori Alhadeff’s daughter Alyssa was also killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Since then, Alhadeff has been advocating for states to pass “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires schools to have silent panic alarms in each classroom to notify law enforcement. Wilcox has incorporated that requirement into his bill.

Response from educators

The bill was opposed by the state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association.

President Renée Pinkney said there are several components she is in favor of, like the panic buttons in every classroom. She said those would be useful not only if there’s an active threat, but also if a student is having a medical emergency. She also likes the building safety assessment and the standardized safety standards and protocols across the state.

Generally, she said the Legislature’s attention to the issue of school safety, through spending months working on this bill and allocating over $100 million, is “very welcome by the school community.”

The association’s concern, Pinkney said, is with the school guardian program. While the bill requires guardians be trained in firearm safety, de-escalation tactics and the role of mental health in incidents, she’s concerned that it won’t be enough to prepare these school employees to interact with children of all ages and backgrounds in a way that “mitigates trauma.”

And while lawmakers are allocating a large amount of one-time funding, Pinkney said “safety concerns are ongoing.” To her, the support from lawmakers needs to be “continuous and it has to be consistent.”

For his part, Wilcox has said that this isn’t a one-and-done bill. He anticipates this is an issue they’ll keep working on. His bill also extends how long the state’s School Security Task Force will last from its original tenure through the end of 2023, now lasting until the end of 2025.

Wilcox’s bill also creates an Education Advisory Board for the task board. It’ll include superintendents, facilities managers, charter school representatives, private school representatives, a parent and other members of the education community.

Other school safety bills

Another bill from Wilcox that passed both the House and the Senate will make it a second-degree felony to make a hoax threat to a school. It also increases penalties for making a violent threat against a school, real or fake.

Republican Rep. Tim Jimenez’s bill, which also passed, will create a program to incentivize teachers to “responsibly secure or carry a firearm on school grounds,” by giving them free training on firearms and defending their classroom. It also gives teachers liability protection.

Copyright 2024 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Martha Harris