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Column: New school year is new opportunity to talk safety

Karla Bigham

By Karla Bigham, Minnesota Senate District 54

It is my pleasure to welcome students of all ages back to classrooms, campuses and everywhere else you are building new skills and pursuing your dreams!

As the daughter and sister of longtime public school employees, I also want to express my gratitude for every individual who makes our exceptional public education system possible. That starts first and foremost with teachers who selflessly go above and beyond every day to educate Minnesota's youth, but it also includes the individuals who prepare food and feed students; keep classrooms and facilities safe and clean; and make possible the extracurricular activities that provide fun, safe opportunities for youth to play and grow after class gets out.

When a new governor and Legislature return to the state Capitol in January 2019, our most important job is to write a new state budget. Historically, the biggest slice of our budget "pie" is Minnesota's public K-12 education system, which currently accounts for more than 40 percent of all expenditures. For reference, the second-largest expenditure at approximately 30 percent is health and human services, with other expenditures including public safety, economic development and the environment financed through the remaining balance.

Back-to-school season is an opportunity for every Minnesotan to re-engage in a conversation about the direction our public education system is heading. In my first year as your new state senator, student safety emerged as a big topic and it continues to be as I talk to families in Cottage Grove, Hastings, South St. Paul, St. Paul Park, Afton, Newport and surrounding townships.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree that improving student safety is a priority, but there are a variety of ideas as to how best accomplish that goal. I'm glad the Legislature appropriated $25 million for school safety grants this year (recipients to be announced at the end of this month), but these funds are limited to "facility improvements" only.

I believe school safety involves taking a broader look at the issue than just fortifying schools into military bases. I favor moving in a direction where state lawmakers better equip schools to identify and address warning signs of danger in the student population. To that end, I am working to establish a new state law that requires every school district to create a "threat assessment team" to prevent a crisis from turning into a tragic loss of life.

I am grateful to Cottage Grove Police Department Capt. Randy McAlister for working with me to craft this piece of legislation.

Threat assessment for schools is a fact-based process developed by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education that helps schools evaluate and assess potentially threatening students or situations. Based on the 2002 Safe School Initiative, the threat assessment process attempts to prevent school violence by encouraging schools to increase awareness and examine potentially threatening behaviors using an integrated team approach.

My bill (Senate File 2993) defines threat assessment teams as individuals with expertise in counseling, mental health, kindergarten through grade 12 instruction, school administration, and law enforcement. The membership may include the juvenile prosecutor whose jurisdiction includes the area within the school district. Each school district could also establish a committee responsible for oversight of threat assessment teams.

School threat assessment is not intended to profile or seek out students who exhibit certain traits, but rather to assist schools in evaluating student behaviors or reports of threatened violence. When conducting a threat assessment, the central question to keep in mind is whether a student's behavior poses a threat — not simply whether a student makes a threat. If you have a question, comment or idea related to school safety, or any other issue, please contact me at your convenience.

Get in touch by phone at 651-297-8060 or email at sen.karla.bigham@senate.mn.

To all students — I wish you success in the year ahead!