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School safety push fizzles in Arizona Legislature

PHOENIX -- A legislative push to protect Arizona students following last year's elementary school shooting rampage failed to gain momentum as fights over health care and the state budget overshadowed everything else in the recently adjourned session.

Lawmakers from both parties advanced proposals to safeguard children and identify potentially dangerous students weeks after the legislative session opened in January.

At the time, the nation was still reeling from the Connecticut massacre, in which 20 first-graders and six educators were killed by a gunman who killed himself, just weeks earlier.

Republicans advanced proposals that would allow teachers to be armed. Democrats raised measures to put more counselors in schools.

But by the time the session reached a frenetic conclusion with a snap special session last week, it had been six months since the shooting and the urgency had passed. Nearly all school protection plans had failed.

The only measures that remained were Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's plan adding $3.6 million for new campus officers and a small appropriation to expand a state mental health first aid program. (However, a Medicaid expansion, which Brewer pushed through in the special session, will enable many new state residents to get mental health treatment, which Democrats sought among their mass shooting response plans.)

The approved state budget for the year starting July 1 includes enough money to pay half the costs of 100 new school guards. Local districts will be on the hook for the rest of the funding. The state now pays for 100 officers split among more than 2,000 schools. Democrats wanted to spend $17 million on new officers.

"Can you say Medicaid?" said Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, who pushed a failed bill to allow teachers in schools statewide to be trained to carry guns. "That kind of took the air out of the tires."

A bill by another Republican, Sen. Rich Crandall of Mesa, would have allowed teachers in only small rural schools more than 30 minutes and 20 miles away from the closest law enforcement facility and without a school police officer to be armed. That bill passed the Senate but never gained traction in the House.

"Part of it was the Democrats were going to be necessary to be on the budget," Crandall said last week. "And the Democrats adamantly opposed the gun bill. I could have tried to force it through in the last day of session or so. But It was just not a highest priority at the end of the session."

Democrats were absolutely opposed to arming teachers, as was the powerful state teachers union.

Rep. Chad Campbell, the House Democratic minority leader, proposed a sweeping set of school safety reforms in January. The $261 million plan counted $161 million in new funding for Medicaid expansion for mental health treatment that was enacted and fully funding treatment for those who didn't qualify for Medicaid.

But the remaining $100 million in his proposal was left on the floor. It included greatly expanding the school officer program, setting up a safety improvement fund and doubling the number of counselors.

Campbell worked with a handful of Republicans who joined a coalition to pass Medicaid and Brewer to craft the budget.

"There are a lot of moving pieces to this budget, and the governor compromised, I had to compromise on many things, members of the coalition had to compromise," Campbell said in an interview last week. "But we did get some money, and that's a step in the right direction from where we were last year."

State legislatures across the nation considered more than 200 bills allowing guns on campuses this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most languished, but a couple smalls measures passed, the NCSL's Lauren Heintz said.

South Dakota set up a "school sentinel" program allowing teachers with training and gun permits to carry guns at K-12 schools. Church school teachers in Arkansas can now carry guns if they have school permission.

Lawmakers also considered about 300 other school safety measures, most involving emergency plans, drills, and other preparations. About 50 laws passed, but many simply instructed the state or schools to do safety studies.

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