After deadly school shooting rampages, including one in their own state, Kentucky lawmakers are considering whether to put mental health professionals in schools in hopes of easing stress in students' lives that could explode into violence.
The bill has support from local law enforcement in Marshall County, where two students were killed and many others injured in a Jan. 23 mass shooting. It won approval Tuesday from the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. The measure heads to the full House, but one question looms: Where will the money come from?
"We firmly believe that if implemented, this piece of legislation would certainly spare us tragedy in the future," said the bill's lead sponsor, Democratic Rep. Will Coursey.
Coursey's district in western Kentucky includes Marshall County High School, where a 15-year-old boy allegedly opened fire in January. Two 15-year-old students were killed in the shootings, with many more injured.
Marshall County Sheriff Kevin Byars said putting mental health professionals in schools is an important preventive step. But he acknowledged he didn't know if it would have spared his community from the tragedy.
"We didn't have any signs," he told lawmakers. "But maybe a trained professional could have seen something where we may have ... headed this off. At least with this bill, it would give us the chance to do that."
The bill says that as funds are available, Kentucky school districts would employ or contract with mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, professional counselors or psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners.
The goal would be to have one mental health professional for every 1,500 students by the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
House budget committee Chairman Steven Rudy told reporters he hopes to secure money in the next two-year state budget to deal with mental health and school safety.
State money designated to promote safe schools is one potential source, said Rudy, a co-sponsor of the bill. Supporters are trying to determine how much the initiative would cost, he said. The bill lists school district funds, federal funds and grants as other potential sources.
Authorities say Gabriel Ross Parker, the teen suspect in the Marshall County shooting, showed no remorse when talking about the carnage and seemed to view his actions as a science experiment. He told police he wasn't bullied and that no event triggered the shootings, they said.
More recently, 17 people were killed in a Feb. 14 Florida school shooting.
Mental health professionals in schools could help students individually or in group settings, supporters said. They also could train teachers and school staff to recognize students' stress. And they would form teams to assist students struggling with problems affecting their behavior and learning.
"This is a crucial step forward," said Lisa Willner, executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association. "It's a pro-active step."
The goal is to make sure schools promote a culture in which students "have a sense of belonging," and that they feel comfortable to confide in adults, she told lawmakers.
"When students feel that way, they're much less likely to perpetrate violence," she said.
One idea being floated nationwide to enhance school safety — arming teachers — got a thumbs-down from Byars and the Marshall County school superintendent.
"Our teachers are trained to teach, and that's what I want them to do," Superintendent Trent Lovett said in an interview after the committee hearing.
Byars questioned the training armed teachers would receive and said a teacher searching for a shooter could create more confusion for police officers in high-stress situations.
"I think it would cause more of a detriment and would hinder our response, not knowing who's armed and who's not," the sheriff said in an interview.
Gov. Matt Bevin recently said Kentucky should consider allowing some people to carry guns in public schools. Bevin said those people should be highly trained and undergo screening to ensure they're capable of handling that responsibility.
Another bill before Kentucky lawmakers would allow school districts to hire armed marshals to patrol public schools, make citizen's arrests and protect people from "imminent death or serious physical injury." Marshals wouldn't have to be police officers but school district employees in good standing who have a license to carry concealed weapons.