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Governor candidates Kelly and Schmidt mostly disagree on how to make Kansas schools safer

Gov. Laura Kelly and challenger Derek Schmidt debate at the Kansas State Fair.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Gov. Laura Kelly and challenger Derek Schmidt debate at the Kansas State Fair.

Derek Schmidt and Laura Kelly do agree on the need for mental health services, but not all policy ideas align.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A grant to fund school safety projects only has enough cash to fulfill half the requests it receives annually.

The Safe and Secure Schools Grant has $4 million of state funding with an additional $1 million coming from the federal government. It pays for things like beefing up entryways, security cameras, communication systems and other ways to fortify schools against attacks and natural disasters.

Lawmakers were updated on the fund and the number of requests at a committee meeting on Tuesday.

Derek Schmidt, the Republican nominee governor, says he’ll put more tax dollars into the program. He’s attacked incumbent Democrat Laura Kelly for not spending more. Kelly’s campaign boasts about working with the Legislature to pay for the existing program.

Expanding the grant could open the door to more police in schools, another point Schmidt pushes. He wants every school interested in a police officer to get one.

Schmidt has praised a school resource officer at Olathe East High School who was injured when a student brought a gun to school earlier this year.

“The officer was shot, but not a single life was lost,” a news release from his campaign said. “Instead of standing up for school resource officers, Kelly has empowered her hand-picked commission on race equity to push for ‘alternatives’ to school resource officers.”

A 2021 report from Kelly’s commission on racial equity and justice wants to retool the role of SROs.

That report doesn’t call for an outright ban but wants schools to explore alternatives. If they have police, they should also have counselors or social workers, the 2020 version of the report said.

It called for districts to be more aware of racial disparities in policing and recommended training in “restorative justice, anti-racism, implicit bias training, and school-based strategies to support social and emotional health and de-escalation.”

“If SROs are utilized in a school or school district, their role should be mentorship of students and enforcement of laws,” the report said. “SROs should not enforce rules or be used to discipline students.”

The two candidates agree on one thing — that expanding mental health resources would keep students safe. Both candidates mentioned the Mental Health Intervention Team program that started in 2018 and lets school districts work alongside community mental health centers.

Madison Andrus, a spokesperson for Kelly’s campaign, said the governor added $33 million in funding to the program which helped participation grow from nine schools to 67.

“Gov. Kelly knows that the best thing we can do for school safety is to continue to fully fund schools and invest in student mental health,” Andrus said. “Fully funding schools allows districts the flexibility to invest in critical safety services like SROs, security upgrades, and counselors.”

CJ Grover, spokesperson for the Schmidt campaign, said the governor has not done enough.

In 2022, a Kansas Communities That Care survey found that 32% of Kansas teens have seriously considered suicide. Grover said every school should have access to the Mental Health Intervention Team.

Independent candidate for governor Dennis Pyle also has some, albeit few, proposals for school safety, like creating a committee to look into school safety issues if he was elected.

Schmidt's public safety platform also includes teaching students how to file suspicious activity reports, using federal COVID funding for school safety needs and passing legislation that toughens penalties for felons who use a weapon while committing another crime.

Kelly’s other public safety proposals revolve around gun laws. She wants background checks on all gun sales, limited access to assault weapons “designed for war” and to ban bump stocks that allow rifles to fire nearly like automatic weapons.

Election Day is Nov. 8. The last day to register to vote is Oct. 18.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to the Kansas News Service.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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