By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY — The creation of a school security institute and mental health training for school staffs were among five recommendations submitted to lawmakers Tuesday by an Oklahoma task force created after last year's deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
The other recommendations call for mandating school intruder drills at public schools along with fire and tornado drills; establishing a school security tip phone line to report suspicious activity; and requiring that any firearm discovered on a school's grounds be reported to law enforcement.
Lt. Gov. Lamb, chairman of the 22-member task force, said law enforcement wasn't notified in some cases when students were discovered with firearms at school.
Gov. Mary Fallin welcomed the suggestions from the task force, which was formed just days after the December shooting rampage that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The governor said Oklahoma schools need to be well-prepared for emergencies.
"The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary was an unwelcome reminder that we must actively work to address the mental health needs of our state," Fallin said.
An Oklahoma school security institute would coordinate and standardize school security procedures statewide, as has been done elsewhere, the Oklahoma Commission on School Security said. For the past 13 years, authorities in Indiana have operated the School Safety Specialist Academy that provides certified training and information on school safety practices, as well as resources for school safety, security and emergency preparedness planning.
Oklahoma's program would operate under the state Office of Homeland Security and would cost about $500,000 to launch, according to Lamb. It would act as the lead agency in providing training and security procedures and could expand its work to include school security officers and architectural designs to make schools safer.
Since 2007, state homeland security officials have provided school security training, but only 411 people representing just 154 of Oklahoma's 521 school districts have attended, Lamb said.
The panel also recommended creation of a voluntary mental health first-aid training pilot program under the guidance of school superintendents and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Lamb estimated its cost at $250,000.
Among other things, the program would provide certified mental health training to help school personnel identify and cope with troubled students but the training would not be mandatory.
"This issue is very important because of the tragedy," Lamb said. "I think you'll see more discussion on school security in the future."
Lamb said the panel's work has been supported by legislative leaders who helped pick the task force's membership.
"I've not received any pushback yet," Lamb said.
Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said the commission was formed to develop forward-thinking proposals.
"There is no issue more important than the safety of Oklahoma's school children," Bingman said. "While recognizing no single policy proposal can prevent all potential acts of evil, I do believe we can be proactive in providing greater resources for teachers, administrators and mental health professionals in Oklahoma schools."
As the task force released its recommendations, a variety of bills involving firearms were moving through the Oklahoma Legislature, including one that would authorize teachers who take a 120-hour training course to bring handguns into classrooms. The measure by Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, passed a state House committee last week.
Lamb said he had not read the measure and it is not among the task force's recommendations for improving school security. The bill is opposed by many teachers and education officials who have raised safety concerns about bringing firearms to school.
Lamb is a former U.S. Secret Service agent and state senator who in 2008 was principal author of the Oklahoma School Security Act. Among other things, the law requires school districts to conduct lockdown drills at each public school and requires administrators to investigate reports of harassment, intimidation, bullying or threatening behavior, including emails or texts.
The task force's recommendations, which now head to the Legislature for possible action, were developed during a series of presentations by school security and terrorism experts on how best to protect the safety of public school students.