SALT LAKE CITY — The issue of school safety has reached a point of "ripeness," Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said Thursday in announcing the newly formed Utah School Safety Commission.
"This is the time to do something," said Kennedy, R-Alpine, a family physician and attorney, who was asked to organize the commission by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
The diverse, nonpartisan commission will meet behind closed doors to develop recommendations to be forwarded to the Utah Legislature, likely before the start of the next school year, he said.
But Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told reporters he believes "the state should not be driving the solutions to school safety" and urged state leaders to "take a back seat" to local school boards and superintendents.
"They're the ones that know this issue better than anybody and they should be the ones leading out," Niederhauser said with the leaders of the state's school boards and superintendents associations by his side.
When asked if he believes the Utah School Safety Commission is needed, the Senate president said, "I don't know," adding that he only found out about it the night before.
"We can react to it and put in all kinds of policies that may not make any difference at all," Niederhauser said. "The Legislature has a tendency and a temptation to get out ahead of a lot of these issues."
His comments were a turnabout from previous statements made in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and led to new national debate over gun control measures.
Last week, the Senate president said lawmakers should look at gun control in the context of school safety during the legislative interim. On Monday, he said he hoped to pass legislation to ensure schools had armed personnel patrolling the grounds.
But after talking with local school district officials, Niederhauser said he now wants "to just take a step back and get behind our local folks and figure out what’s really going to make a difference."
Kennedy said he spoke with Niederhauser and agrees that "the state needs to get out of the way." He said there was no intention of excluding the Senate, but "the intention behind that is somebody's got to do something."
He said he is serving as a "facilitator" for the commission, but neither he nor any other lawmaker is part of the group.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert reiterated his position that states have a role to play in the reduction of violence in schools.
The governor said he has already asked state school officials to reach out to the 41 districts in Utah to assure proper protocols are being followed, especially practice drills for active shooter incidents.
“The lead role is going to be taken by the states and our local school districts,” he said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck issue."
Kennedy said the new commission won't issue any reports until it reaches its final recommendations.
"Actually what I want is just great ideas and actionable items that are not dependent on some 30-page report that no one is going to read," he said, calling the commission "small enough to be manageable, intimate enough to actually have the conversations that we need to have."
All options are on the table, the lawmaker said, which could include technology, architecture, exploring the psyches of people who commit violence as well as other considerations.
He initially would not comment on possibly banning the sales of certain firearms, but later said whether gun restrictions are discussed will be up to the commission.
"I look forward to seeing what the commission does," Kennedy said. "Everything is on the table. It really should be."
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and a commission member, said he looks forward to some "great dialogue. Everything is going to be on the table. As we dialogue and talk through these things, we're going to identify the actual problems and trust in the solutions."
Just as Utah has developed a template to address its nation-leading rate of youth suicide, "we're looking forward to hopefully making a template for school safety across this nation as well."
The commission includes educators, a school architect, academics, the superintendent of the Utah State Hospital and a representative of a gun owners organization, among others, but no lawmakers.
One constituent group missing are students. Kennedy issued an open call for two students but said he prefers that students select their own representatives among students scheduled to march on the state Capitol later this month.
"March for Our Lives" demonstrations are being planned across the country on March 24.
The volunteer commission conducted its inaugural meeting on Thursday, Kennedy said.
After the nation's worst school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 14 students and three faculty members, the urgency to do something about school safety has come to us in "real time," Hughes said.
"It's time to act. It's time to act right now," the speaker said.
With the legislative session coming to a close, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, plans to introduce legislation to authorize judges, after a court hearing, to issue "extreme risk protective orders" permitting law enforcement to take away the guns of people in mental crisis after a judicial process. After 20 days, the person could return to court for further proceedings.
This is not about government seizing people's weapon. A judicial process is required, Handy said.
"This is a public health, public safety kind of thing. That's the way we have to think about it," he said.
While Kennedy said he had no preconceived notions going into the commission process, Dallas Earnshaw, superintendent of the Utah State Hospital, said he views this as an opportunity to educate people about mental illness.
Earnshaw said he is concerned about assumptions that mental illness leads to violence.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from mental illness who are not violent, who have never committed acts of violence, and it stigmatizes those with mental illness," he said.
It is also true that a small number of people who have committed violent acts have gone through the court system and have been committed to secure care after a judicial process intended to protect them and society from further harm, he said.15 comments on this story
"I think we have to be very careful as we look at solutions and laws that we don't put everyone into one nice package that misses the boat," said Earnshaw, also a commission member.
Terryl Warner, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, said parents assume when their children walk into the doors of a school that they will be safe.
This commission will be looking at those assumptions and make sure those assumptions are followed through with," said Warner, who is also director of victim services for the Cache County Attorney’s Office.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue