Legislature to tackle school safety

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By , VTDigger.org

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin work this week on a bill that tackles school safety, school discipline and laws related to threats of mass violence.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the committee, said he intends to take a now-irrelevant House bill on gun violence, strip its current language, and use it as a foundation for efforts to prevent school violence.

“We will look at dealing with concrete threats to schools, school discipline issues and a few other things” such as fast-tracking the hiring of retired police officers to be school resource officers and addressing issues of social isolation and discipline of troubled students, Sears said.

The senator said H.675, a gun control bill passed by the House a few weeks ago, would serve as the bedrock of the new legislation. The original bill contained a number of provisions that were passed last week in two separate bills dealing with gun control in domestic violence and extreme risk situations.

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said his office would be proposing two legal reforms crafted specifically to combat school shootings and attempts at planning such attacks.

One would make it a felony to issue threats against a group of people. Under existing law it is a misdemeanor. Threats against children also would be regarded as a crime more serious than threats against adults.

“Not constitutionally speaking, but our children are in a protection class where we have a higher duty to make sure out children are safe,” Campbell said.

The other change would make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute attempted crimes. Rather than having to prove that an “overt” action was taken to carry out a crime, prosecutors would be able to apply a “substantial step analysis,” which requires establishing intent to commit a crime and identifying a step corroborating that intent.

Campbell said the reforms are a response to mass shootings across the country, not to the case of case of Jack Sawyer, an 18-year-old arrested earlier this year for allegedly plotting an attack on Fair Haven Union High School.

The question of whether Sawyer attempted to carry out the attack has been central to the case — prosecutors say the fact that he made his intentions clear and purchased a gun is enough to prove an attempt, while defense attorneys say nothing he did amounted to an actual attempt.

Campbell said the proposals were discussed with Sears and with House Judiciary Committee Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown; both “expressed their desire to have legislation they could pass to help protect kids.”

Rep. Gary Viens, R-Newport, will give testimony to the Senate committee Tuesday on a proposal to recruit retired police officers to become school resource officers, Sears said. Viens, a former police officer himself, could not be reached Monday to discuss the proposal.

The House Education Committee will also be taking testimony on school safety this week. Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, who sits on the committee, said the focus would be on the deployment of $4 million in the capital bill dedicated to school safety reforms.

“We want to make sure we understand what schools and the administration are doing to make sure schools are safe,” he said.

The $4 million set aside in the House budget is leveraged against $1 million in federal funds and outlines a competitive grant program that would allow schools to apply for up to $25,000 in matching funds for infrastructure projects such as cameras or basic security improvements.

Giambatista said he was not sure what concrete proposals would come out of the testimony this week, but that the issue was certain to remain a focus throughout the rest of this legislative session.

“Everyone’s got eyes on this,” he said.

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