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House approves sweeping school safety enhancements

The House chamber on Thursday passed bipartisan legislation that significantly strengthens safety at public and private schools across Tennessee. The School Safety Act of 2023, House Bill 322,, was introduced in January, though several measures were added following the deadly shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27.

House and Senate leaders joined Gov. Bill Lee on Monday to announce the additional actions to heighten safety at public and private schools across Tennessee. These measures include enhanced legislation and funding to place an armed security guard at every Tennessee public school, boost physical school security at public and private schools, and provide additional mental health resources for Tennesseans.  The bill adds $140 million to establish a school resource officer (SRO) grant fund to place a trained, armed security guard at every public school.

“Our children must feel safe when they attend their school of choice. Gov. Lee’s plan to fund SROs for public and private schools will provide a safer learning environment and additional security,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. “We also must continue to address mental health in K-12 education and provide resources like counselors, social workers, and other health care professionals.”

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The bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and House Education Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, codifies best practices already carried out in most Tennessee schools. The bill aims to ensure a statewide standard of school safety by putting in place collaborative prevention strategies for threat assessment, active shooter drills, and requires public and charter schools to secure all exterior doors and vestibules. It requires all newly built schools to install classroom door locks.

“The tragedy at Covenant School underscores that evil takes the path of least resistance and preys on society’s most vulnerable. No child, parent, teacher or school employee should ever fear for their safety,” said Lamberth. “I am thankful to Gov. Lee and my Republican colleagues for their continued commitment and investment in our schools. These are aggressive and necessary steps that will ensure Tennessee’s schools are the safest, most secure in the nation.”

The Tennessee General Assembly and Gov. Lee have prioritized investments in school safety over the last four years. Lee in 2021 signed Executive Order 97 and launched a statewide effort to enhance school safety by boosting collaboration among parents, schools and local law enforcement across the state.

The School Safety Act of 2023 / House Bill 322:

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  • Enacts a multi-tiered accountability plan to require exterior doors of public and private schools are locked when students are present
  • Requires that private security guards are held to a high standard and receive active shooter training
  • Requires every public and private school to develop annual safety plans
  • Require all newly-built schools to:
    • Install classroom door locks that lock from the inside
    • Secure vestibules for visitor entry
    • Require the installation of a clear bullet-resistant or entry-resistant film on the glass panel of any exterior entry or basement-level window to prevent individuals from entering who are not allowed
    • Require camera systems to continuously monitor each entrance hallway and communal area.

Governor Lee’s amended budget proposal includes:

  • $30 million to expand a statewide homeland security network with agents serving students in public and private schools
  • $140 million to establish an SRO grant fund to place a trained, armed security guard at every public school
  • $20 million for public school security upgrades
  • $7 million for private school security upgrades
  • $8 million for additional school-based behavioral health liaisons across the state

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