Sen. Lamar Alexander introduces school safety bill to Senate floor

WASHINGTON, DC (WATE) - Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke directly to President Trump on Tuesday night to present his bill, the School Safety and Mental Health Services Improvement Act.

The bill was officially introduced to the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon int he aftermath of the deadly Florida school shooting.

Alexander says that while a majority of school safety decisions are made on the local and state level, it is the federal government's job to make sure they have adequate resources.

"As the authorities try to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in this shooting, many of us in local, state and the federal government have been looking at what can be done to help keep students safe at school. We can't stand still and do nothing while our children are being killed," Alexander told the Senate floor.

If passed, the bill will help states use federal money to hire more counselors and mental health professionals. It will allow federal funding to be used to improve safety infrastructure like alarm systems and security cameras. It will also make sure there are programs in place to help kids after violent incidents and create an interagency task force to make recommendations on policies to improve school security.

That money would be put to good use in Knox County.

"Our school counselors in Knox County Schools do a great job of prioritizing student needs in certain students and I just have to applaud them on the work that they do everyday to make sure kids get what they need," said Melissa Massie, the executive director of student support services for Knox County Schools. 

It's a tall order for counselors who are charged with the oversight of hundreds of students each day. 

"Our school counselors are very busy people," said Massie. 

The American School Counselor Association recommends schools have a student to counselor ratio of 250 to one. In Knox County, the district doesn't meet that recommendation. 

"We do not have school counselors in every school at the elementary level. We have a ratio of one to about 750 kids," said Massie. 

Depending on the size of the school, the number of counselors vary. On average, Knox County middle schools have 490 students for every counselor. High schools in the district have a ratio of 350 students to one counselor.

"That would be part of our supporting evidence that we need to continue to fund additional school counselors," said Massie. 

Alexander's new bill proposes that states use every federal dollar available. 

"Improve school safety and stop school violence," said Alexander. 

Massie adds, "We do a good job but we certainly could use more people because we have a lot of kids that have a lot of needs."

The Tennessee Ddepartment of Education recognizes funding more school counselors is necessary to be at a level closer to national best practices.

To achieve that ratio of 250 students to every counselor, the state would need an estimated $56 million on top of funding they already receive. That's according to the 2017 recommendations in BEP report from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

The Tennessee Department Of Educations says it is state law that requires each school district to provide school counselors for pre-K through grade 12. 

A spokesperson with the state provided this statement:

"We provide state funds for districts to hire school counselors. Generally, for grades K-6, we provide state funding to hire one school counselor for every 500 students, and for grades 7-12 we provide funding to support one school counselor for every 350 students. Districts can use local funds to hire additional school counselors. It may be helpful to know that the department has recently revised our school counseling policy to better ensure that school counselors are spending more time working directly with students instead of doing other administrative tasks. These reset of expectations for school counseling services will ultimately help schools increase the services and support available for students.

School counselors are a key component of a healthy school environment. We are exploring how we as administrators and state leaders can best support school safety, and as part of that we are reviewing what schools are doing across the state right now. That includes looking at available funding, school resource officers, school counselors and psychologists, and how we address the variety of non-academic needs of our students. This stocktake will inform our next steps and recommendations for ensuring that our students are not only safe but that the whole school environment is nurturing their development, and every child and family feels like their school is a safe, welcoming place to be."

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