The safety and well-being of our children is paramount, and in my capacity as chair of the House Education Finance Committee, I am advancing a comprehensive school-safety package this session that provides resources to make necessary security upgrades, addresses student mental health and gives our districts the flexibility and funding they need, allowing them to make the safety decisions that work best for their students and schools.

This $28.5 million package was included in the omnibus supplemental education bill approved overwhelmingly, and bipartisanly in our committee last Wednesday, April 18.

First, key components of this security package are two initiatives I have crafted to fund school-security upgrades. The first policy expands the scope of a program called Long-Term Facilities Maintenance Revenue, which would allow these dollars to be used for needed security upgrades in districts statewide.

The other measure would provide $25 million in the bonding bill to be used for grants directly to school districts for safety upgrades. Both provide critical funding and flexibility for our schools to ensure their buildings are as safe as possible.

The security upgrades needed by Eden Prairie Schools could be vastly different from what a school in Ely may need, for example, so it’s critical that we give our local districts discretion and control to make the security improvements that best fit their needs and community expectations. These improvements include a wide variety of measures from emergency communications systems to building enhancements to secure entryways and better control access to school buildings.

As schools assess their needs, another proposal in my school-safety package would reimburse schools that complete security audits. We are also increasing the per-pupil funding every school will receive under the current Safe Schools Levy program from the current $36 per student to $54 per student. Eden Prairie Schools would receive an additional $172,000 if this Safe Schools increase becomes law. This flexible funding stream can be used to fund school resource officers, mental health counseling, other school support personnel, security improvements, crime and drug-abuse prevention or gang-resistance training. In addition, small schools with low student populations will be guaranteed a minimum of $30,000 to ensure they would receive a meaningful resource for school safety through this program.

Expanding mental health services in our schools is part of my safety package this session, as it is a critical component of school safety and improving outcomes for Minnesota students. I have championed addressing this escalating need since becoming chair of the Education Committee in 2015. Since that time, we have more than doubled our commitment to school-linked mental health grants —from $5 million to $11 million annually — and our safety package invests an additional $5 million in the program for fiscal year 2019 and on an ongoing basis.

More dollars for school-linked mental health grants means increased access to services for children who are uninsured or underinsured and reaching more kids early on who have untreated mental health issues. This is on top of several initiatives we have passed over the past few sessions including matching grants to fund additional school counselors and support personnel, encouraging positive behavioral intervention strategies and providing training for educators.

This is all part of important efforts to have a healthy school climate in which students treat their peers with respect, a culture of inclusiveness is fostered, and we ensure that children who have struggled to fit in or feel accepted don’t fall through the cracks of our school safety net.

There is still more work to do to increase access to mental health care services for the students who need it, particularly in areas where mental health care professionals are in short supply. The Health and Human Services Committee is considering a grant to pilot the use of telemedicine to bring mental health services to students in remote communities where mental health providers are not available. What’s more, by providing more funding and multiple, flexible options for schools to beef up their building security, we help free up existing school resources to fund needed support staff across our state.

While the House rules do not permit the Education Committee to address legislation regulating firearms, we all want the assurance that current laws are enforced and effective at preventing criminals and those who are deemed at “extreme risk” to themselves or others from accessing guns. I support the Second Amendment and do not agree with taking away the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners.

As such, I believe people on all sides of the issue should be ready to come to the table and have respectful, fact-based discussion about workable solutions, best practices and data-driven efforts that could actually have an impact on this crisis. I am open to those discussions and will work to find solutions and develop consensus.

I am dedicated to working for our schools, students and parents, championing changes that positively impact student safety. Fortunately, there is quite a bit of overlap on policy ideas being proposed in the Legislature and by the Governor’s Office, and those complementary ideas make me optimistic we can make significant strides in enhancing students and school safety, continuing to put our kids first.

Jenifer Loon represents House District 48B, which includes most of Eden Prairie, in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Loon encourages constituents to contact her with questions or opinions on any state or legislative issue. She can be reached via email at rep.jenifer.loon@house.mn and phone calls can be placed to her office at 651.296.7449. U.S. mail should be sent to Rep. Jenifer Loon, 449 State Office Building, 100 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.

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