Revamped Michigan school safety bills get first committee hearing

State Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) listens to a speaker at a House Education Committee meeting. (Michigan Advance/Anna Liz Nichols)

By Michigan Advance

March 21, 2024


MICHIGAN—A package of bills designed to enhance school safety got their first hearing on Tuesday from the Michigan House Education Committee.

Chaired by Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), the hearing came just a week after the committee took a field trip to Sterling Heights High School in Macomb County to hear from educational leaders about school safety and the youth mental health crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the committee heard from bill sponsors, as well as various stakeholders, including school psychologists, social workers and safety consultants.

State Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi) sponsored HB 5549, which would amend the Revised School Code to require that every public school board have a behavior threat assessment and management team. She testified that student safety was a complex problem with no easy answers.

“We also know that violence is not limited to gun violence. It’s not limited to schools. It’s a multifaceted problem and it will require multifaceted solutions and we wished to as a task force together find solutions that would mitigate and prevent violence overall,” she said.

Breen said the bipartisan School Safety Task Force formed in the aftermath of the Oxford High School shootings in November 2021 have deliberately taken their time in coming up with legislative solutions, ultimately deciding to focus on six policy areas: mental health, physical security, data processes and procedures, staffing, firearms and criminal justice, and education and public service information.

“We agreed from the beginning that we were going to do everything we could to keep politics out of our efforts,” said Breen. “And as we went along, we experienced another horrific shooting down the road at my alma mater (MSU). It was clear that we could not leave politics out of any discussion that involved firearms, so we did not address firearms within the context of these bills. What we have done is address those elsewhere and I’ve kept up my end of the bargain.”

Following the February 2023 killings at Michigan State University, Democrats who control the Legislature prioritized and pushed through a slate of gun safety reform bills including for safe storage of firearms, universal background checks, and red flag laws.

Breen said her bill came about following an independent investigation of the Oxford shootings, which concluded that had threat assessment and suicide intervention been carried out appropriately, the incident could have been prevented.

“This will require all public and charter schools to have a behavior threat assessment and management team. This team must include a school administrator, a mental health professional, and a school resource officer or other law enforcement official,” she said. “The threat assessment team would monitor, assess and perform inquiries; and to concerning behavior, distinguish between credible and non-credible threats and determine when a situation requires law enforcement intervention.”

She said the team would also develop a written plan to assist a student who’s engaging in concerning behavior, including supportive measures to address the root cause of the issue and focus strictly on punishment.

“Threat assessment teams are going to change the lives of our students, positively impact our communities for generations to come,” said Breen.

Also testifying was state Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville), whose HB 4089 would create a School Safety and Mental Health Commission.

“This is something that’s going to … help us here in the Legislature understand more fully what we are facing throughout the schools,” he said. “So, it’s made up of experts and people that I think can speak into this issue in a lot better way and hopefully take their time to really dig in and evaluate and then give back recommendations to us here in the legislature about things that maybe they see could be changed.”

Meerman said while the bills up for discussion Tuesday weren’t going to solve the problem, they definitely are moving in the right direction.

“I do think these bills get us down the road a lot further than we are today and will be important to helping us maintain our school safety,” he said.

Other bills in the package include HB 4092, sponsored by state Rep. Nancy DeBoer (R-Holland), which would require the Office of School Safety, in conjunction with the Michigan State Police (MSP) to notify both local law enforcement and the the emergency and safety manager of an intermediate school district (ISD) within 24 hours of any safety-related tip being received.

“It’s important to recognize that the MSP receives a wide variety of tips—some of them very specific, others incredibly vague and general,” said DoBoer. “So the 24-hour deadline gives MSP some time to analyze those vague or general tips. Local law enforcement and or the local sheriff’s department are specifically required to be notified when appropriate. I think they are a critical part of preventing the most serious situations that may arise and often may have other knowledge or insights into the tip that the MSP doesn’t.”

House Bill 4095, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit) and House Bill 4096, sponsored by Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton), together would require MSP to develop a standardized response terminology plan to “provide direction for terminology that should be used by schools in response to certain situations and to require the governing bodies of public and nonpublic schools to adopt and implement the plan.”

Neither Young nor Puri were available to speak, so Breen summarized the purpose behind those two bills, saying every single first responder needs to be on the same page and are using the same language that educators are using.

“We have a variety of different terms that are often tossed about and unfortunately it can lead to confusion,” she said. “So what we are going to ask MSP to do is to develop the correct terminology to be used in an emergency situation. We are then going to ask MSP to run those terms through the School Safety and Mental Health Commission.

“There are some things that 6-year-olds probably should not overhear. So we need to make sure that all the vernacular use is not only the same but developmentally appropriate for any children that would be involved,” she said.

Koleszar then asked Breen why a slate of legislation that the School Safety Task Force introduced last term ultimately never moved out of committee, referencing a partisan sticking point that came to a head in February when Minority Leader Matt Hall (Richmond Twp.) attempted to do an end-run the committee and introduced discharge petitions to bring the bills to the full House for a vote. The maneuver ultimately failed, but angered Democrats, particularly Breen, who called it a “blatant attempt to turn it into a political football [that was] beyond the pale.” Several House Republicans have issued press releases since then demanding for the package to be taken up.

The legislation in question, House Bills 40884100, came from a task force formed by then-House Republican leadership after the Oxford shooting, and focused on school safety efforts and access to mental health resources.

By the time they were introduced on Feb. 14, 2023, the day after the mass shooting on the Michigan State University campus, Democrats were in control of the chamber and assigned the bills to the Education Committee, with the intent to start over and approach the issue in a more broad-based manner.

In answering Koleszar’s question on Tuesday, Breen noted that since the previous package was introduced, lawmakers had received a wide array of input from all quarters, including private and charter school stakeholders.

“Probably the biggest thing though was the Oxford report [issued in October 2023], which caused us to change direction with several of these bills to make sure that we can not repeat some of the same mistakes that happened along that way,” she responded.

Other members of the committee also had questions, including Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City), who expressed his concerns about how the issue of school safety was being framed.

“I see school safety and the physical barrier of a school as completely different from mental health, and I say that because schools right now are one of the safest places for kids to be. That’s what statistics show,” he said. “I say that because the school safety industry is now a $3.1 billion industry, which is more than the standardized testing industry. I think that’s an important part of the discussion.”

Breen responded to that point by acknowledging agreement with Wegela’s premise, but not his conclusion.

“I agree with you; schools are one of the safest places kids can be,” she said. “But some of those kids are committing acts of violence, so you do have to take it both ways. I don’t think it’s a separate discussion. I think they should be one in the same.”

However,  Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte), had a similar issue with the bills.

“These bills seem to be heavily focused on crisis response and we won’t fix the problem unless we are also heavily focused on preventative responses such as conflict resolution, restorative practices, anti-bullying, gang intervention, and none of those things were mentioned in the bills,” she said. “And I think that that should be something that maybe we could talk about and consider.”

Breen said she understood the concern and it wasn’t being ignored.

“I do agree with you and you heard me talk about the different timeframes that we have to address an issue,” said Breen. “One is prevention, two is, ‘How do you respond in the moment?’ and three is, ‘How do you recover?’ And yes, we want the bulk of resources to come in with prevention, but we can’t ignore the other two timeframes. So I would say this is not an either/or, this is a yes. And so, and talking about restorative justice and a lot of the things that you practice, those are delivered at the district level.”

Another question came from Rep. Gina Johnsen (R-Lake Odessa), who asked why the proposed School Safety and Mental Health Commission didn’t include outside civic groups,

“Namely churches, synagogues, mosques, religious groups that are already doing parenting counseling, marriage counseling, family counseling, and they’re working on so much of the cultural problems that we’re facing,” said Johnsen.

Breen noted that the Legislature had invested millions of dollars to support the efforts of a variety of civic groups such as GOAL Line Detroit or MiFamily Engagement Centers, but for this purpose, they believe the focus needs to be school-based.

“As far as putting a specific religious organization on the commission, I don’t think that would be appropriate,” said Breen. “I don’t think a specific organization in particular would necessarily do anything better than what we’re doing within the budget to give districts money to work with these outside organizations.”

After hearing from the sponsors of the legislation, other stakeholders had a chance to speak. Among them was Melissa Kree, a school psychologist with Oxford Community Schools, who said in the aftermath of the 2021 shootings, she considered changing districts, or even changing careers, but ultimately decided to make a commitment to remain in Oxford and continue to raise her kids there.

“It is both my professional and personal obligation to ensure that their and every other students’ physical and emotional safety are considered and the work that we do surrounding school safety, suicide, and threat assessment,” Kree said. “These bills have the potential to save lives, to give districts guidance surrounding threat assessment work that many have been desperately seeking and trying to initiate in their own districts.”

However, Kree said the threat assessment will only be successful if it is made a priority. 

“There are a lot of initiatives that play in the state of education. It has to be prioritized,” she said. “This work cannot be ignored. It has become almost cliche to say it’s not a matter of if, but when a school will experience a crisis threat assessment and crisis teams in Michigan are called to action. Not once in a while, not annually, not maybe, but daily. I promise you every single day across districts, counties and the state, the bills before you today have the potential to equip schools with the best practice models and policies so that our students, staff and families can feel confident in their district’s ability to conduct threat assessments and follow school safety protocols in a way that prioritizes both their physical and psychological safety.”

Karen Dunholter, president of the Michigan Association of School Social Workers Region A, which includes Washtenaw, Wayne and Monroe counties, echoed that point, telling the committee that the extensive training she underwent was invaluable in helping both students and other staff members deal with the suicide of a student.

“A tragedy like this is nothing you ever prepare for and it goes on for years. This was 10 years ago and we still are impacted by that. Our staff, our students. All of my training, which I’m so lucky to have had, has helped me in this crisis,” she said. “So again, talking about implementing trainings, giving the ability for schools to train, giving the funding for it is so necessary.”

The final speaker was Jason Russell, a current member of the School Safety and Mental Health Commission. Russell said he was also a school safety consultant, former Secret Service agent and a parent of a teacher and two public school children.

“I believe that the school safety bill package will begin to bring much needed oversight and guidance to school districts in Michigan to have clearly defined behavioral threat assessment processes and teams, standardized terminology and reporting processes, along with the commission to continuously work on and look at improvements needed in supporting the mental health and safety of our children, educators, and families,” he said. “I hope that by sharing my experience today, it will shed a light as another voice to testify and the importance of the safety bill package before you today.”

The committee took no votes before adjourning.

READ MORE: Nearly two dozen Michigan public schools will receive free books this month

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 




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