While summer is the season many children and adults most look forward to, it always seems to pass by the quickest. With the start of school, household schedules are returning to normal, but sadly the beginning of this school year feels very different than in years past. Worries that never crossed the minds of those in my generation are now real concerns for students, teachers and parents. Each year in the legislature, we work on a wide array of issues, debate various policies and pass legislation we hope will improve the lives of Georgians. However, nothing we deal with as a body is more important than the safety of our children and students.

Sen. Larry Walker

Because of recent events across the nation, both the Senate and the House appointed study committees to learn more about the challenges that our school administrators, staff, students and parents are facing every single day. In addition to these committees working to find legislative solutions, the Senate and House allocated $16 million in the FY ’19 budget to help school districts throughout the state improve campus security by means they deem most effective. Because there is no “one size fits all” solution to this problem, I think this is a great step forward in helping schools – rural and urban – tackle their most pressing school safety needs.

Though several legislators are former teachers, it has been a long time since most of us have been in a primary or high school classroom. The meetings being held are helping legislators better understand what it is like to face today’s classroom challenges, such as mental health and cyber bullying. The Georgia Senate School Safety Study Committee has heard from superintendents, students, police, parents, staff and other stakeholders and thus far, we have learned a lot about what can be done to improve school safety.

Although much discussion has centered around “hardening” school security, the Senate committee recognizes that school safety is about much more than violence in school. It is about protecting everyone within the school from harm, some of which is beyond our control. For example, the committee has been hearing about mandatory severe weather and fire drills and EMT response times in the event of an accident. Along these lines, we’ve learned about the life saving difference a program like “Stop the Bleed” can make and the value of having AED (automated external defibrillator) devices in schools. School safety is much more than a school shooting or bomb threat, and we must be prepared to do everything in our power to ensure that our students and teachers are prepared for every emergency.

Another aspect of student safety that has impacted my community is school bus safety. Arlana Haynes, a precious Parkwood Elementary first-grader, died this past January from injuries sustained when the school bus she was on wrecked and overturned. I have been researching school bus safety and the effectiveness of seat belts on school buses since that tragic accident. Twenty-five million students across the United States travel to and from school on a school bus every day, and school bus accidents result in less than one percent of traffic fatalities every year. But just one student dying is too many.

These are some things I’ve gathered from learning more about this issue. The first is that the seating system that is in place now is designed to work as a kind of seatbelt already. School buses employ “compartmentalization” which works to keep the child in an area protected with high back seating and padding to help absorb blows. While this technology is the best technique to help prevent injuries in most types of traffic accidents, compartmentalization, as well as seat belts, do not always help in roll-over or side impact crashes. Eight states now require seatbelts, and I am interested to see if they experience fewer injuries and fatalities as a result. I’m also curious to learn about what other technology might be available to keep children even safer.

While the efficacy of seatbelts on school buses is yet unproven, other measures have proven to increase the safety of riders as they exit the bus. One such solution was made lawful in Georgia with the passage of House Bill 978. This law provides for increased speed limit enforcement in a school zone by allowing the use of an automated traffic enforcement device in a school zone. Because there aren’t always enough police officers to patrol traffic around all schools during peak hours, we believe this will encourage those traveling around schools to slow down and drive safer.

I think we can all agree that providing for our children’s education is state government’s most important role, and it is incumbent upon us to provide a safe environment for their education. Like you, the Georgia House and Senate are concerned about school safety, and we are working to find solutions. I am confident that the study committees will recommend practical measures to effectively improve school safety, which we will work to implement in the 2019 session. However, we don’t have all the anwers, and I encourage you to work with me to solve this and other problems that we face as a state. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with any suggestions, and if you would like to send your comments on school safety directly to the study committee who is researching legislative initiatives that might help, you can do so at the website under the “contact us” tab: https://www.gasenatek12safety.com/

If I can be of service to you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact my office. As always, it is a pleasure to serve you.