Education

When students walk into Frederick Douglass High in Lexington, they enter a set of double doors equipped with automatic locks, then funnel into the gym to pass their bags through metal detectors before heading to locked classrooms.

“In the beginning, it was a hassle, because we weren’t used to it,” said student Arianna Lane. She compares the morning routine to going through the airport, but adds, “we’re now used to it, and it goes by super quick.”

Arianna says not all students agree that the new routine is worth it (the school made a lighthearted Youtube video to prepare students for the metal detectors) but she feels safer. The metal detectors are only one part of her school’s safety system — and Fayette County Public School administrators are quick to say, they’re the least important part.

Courtesy Fayette County Public Schools

Students go through metal detectors at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., Friday, May 31, 2019.

The district levied a new local tax in order to upgrade safety features at buildings across the district, with a plan to eventually place metal detectors at all middle and high schools, and to hire and train more mental health professionals and police officers for their schools.

The building security at Frederick Douglass High exceeds new state requirements for school safety.  The high school has 54 exterior doors, and between 8:25 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., the only doors a person can open without sounding an alarm are located at the school’s main office, where visitors have to use an intercom to enter, then sign in and get an identification badge.

Frederick Douglass High School was built in 2017, and has the latest safety features now typical for new school construction. But before long, all Kentucky schools will be required to have some of those features.

This school is a shining example of what state legislators would like to do for all Kentucky schools. But not all schools have Fayette County’s tax base, and the sweeping new school safety law has yet to receive state funding.

Schools Prepare For The Not-Yet-Funded School Safety and Resiliency Act

The School Safety and Resiliency Act, known as Senate Bill 1 during the past legislative session, will require every school to have intercoms, cameras and automatic locking doors at their main entrances, and locks on all their classroom doors by July 2022.

The law also requires schools to appoint a school safety coordinator and train threat assessment teams. Lawmakers also set potential goals for hiring more school counselors and school resource officers.

Those are just some of the measures in the School Safety and Resiliency Act.  Part one was getting all that into law.

“Part two is going to be the funding and the implementation,” said Eric Kennedy, Government Relations Director for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

The legislation passed with bipartisan support, but with no money attached yet. While lawmakers work out funding during next year’s budget session, schools are already planning for the new requirements.

This summer, KSBA is working to educate school officials about the new safety law, and survey them on their current safety measures to figure out what it will take for all schools to meet the most immediate mandates. A couple dozen schools have returned their surveys so far, and Kennedy says the results show some schools are more prepared for the law’s implementation than others.

The Biggest Immediate Expense? Locks On Doors

Kennedy’s job will be to lobby state legislators to help all schools meet the letter of the law.

“The biggest lift for schools … in some places … will be the electronic door locking system,” Kennedy said. “Those can get expensive. I mean, even $10,000 for one door to have the camera intercom, that is pretty typical.”

Liz Schlemmer | wfpl.org

These side-entrance exterior doors at Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington will sound off alarms if opened while class is in session.

The automatic locks are for front doors, but classroom doors will also need regular locks. Kennedy says some schools built in the ‘70s, during an open school fad, don’t even have classroom doors.

“And the trouble on every issue of funding and public education in Kentucky is always the same: the places that have the greatest need, have the greatest need of funding as well,” Kennedy said.

Places like Dawson Springs Independent Schools, a district with just two schools in rural western Kentucky. Lenny Whalen is the superintendent. He’s looking at having to retrofit locks on a lot of old classroom doors.

“For a district my size, it might not be what a larger district would consider a tremendous amount of money,” Whalen said. “But on the flip side of that, if you had a larger district, they just have it on a much larger scale.”

School Districts Look To Legislature To Come Through With Funding

Many schools, all over the state, are already compliant with the new law. But districts with older buildings, that can’t raise enough local revenue — like Fayette County did — will need help to meet the law.

“Several of our legislators have said that they’re going to be really making a solid push to try to come up with some financial resources to help us implement some of this,” Whalen said. “So I’m looking forward to them stepping up and helping us do that as well as they’ve already talked about.”

Senator Max Wise, who championed the law, has said he thinks it could cost 35 million dollars or more, but the survey is still out on that. The Legislative Research Commission, which often estimates the cost of legislative proposals, did not put a price tag on the school safety bill when it was being considered at the legislature.

The building security measures are the most pressing and expensive mandate on schools, but that’s just one piece of the school safety law. Other more costly proposals in the law — like getting enough counselors in schools to meet national recommendations — those are just goals. This means those personnel objectives won’t become an unfunded mandate, but they could end up both unfunded and unfulfilled.

Many lawmakers, of both parties, say they’re committed to paying for the upgrades to keep Kentucky’s students safe. Those commitments will be put to the test next legislative session.

Correction: This story has been updated to note the Fayette County school district’s planned locations for metal detectors, and correct how many schools have the detectors currently.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.