Senate Republicans launch efforts to conduct statewide review of facilities and services to improve student safety

Proposed legislation ranges from conducting a statewide gap assessment of physical safety defenses and installing interlocking doors to a review of mental health services and school-based health centers.
Sen. Trey Stewart (center) gives remarks about the need to do an extensive gap assessment of school physical defenses during a press briefing on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. In addition to campus safety, Republicans also spoke about improving mental health resources at school-based health centers. (Senate Republican Office/Mike Fern)

AUGUSTA – Senate Republicans unveiled legislation during a press briefing on Tuesday to help bolster student mental health and school safety. The bills, ranging from a call to conduct a statewide forensic audit of current school physical defenses to the implementation of school-based health centers, all aim to improve the safety of students while on campus, improve mental health and prevent substance abuse.

According to Senate Republican Leader Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, the process has to start with a gap assessment of all school facilities in Maine to see what available technologies should be incorporated into existing schools and become part of new building codes for future construction.

“I think there’s a myriad of examples that we’ve seen recently in the last couple of years of times when that technology didn’t exist or it wasn’t utilized at all and led to unfortunate outcomes,” Stewart said. “We should get ahead of that in the State of Maine and we should be pushing for that.”

Using the example of interlocking door controller technology, otherwise known as deadman or mantrap doors consisting of a double set of doors that can be immediately locked simultaneously in an emergency, he said lawmakers should convene a task force or create a standing committee to rely on experts across a variety of fields to make recommendations to the Legislature.

“We need to be making sure that our rural districts in particular are not falling behind for a lack of resources,” he said. “It can’t be the case that schools in, for instance, Aroostook or Washington County are not as secure as schools in Cumberland County simply because they don’t have the resources. Those kids matter just as much. Those teachers matter just as much.”

For Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, the recently released results from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” show that Maine students are having mental health issues that have led to increased rates of thoughts of suicide and a sense of sadness and hopelessness, particularly among girls. In sharing some statistics, she said the results are alarming.

“Young people in the U.S. and here in Maine are collectively experiencing a level of distress that calls for action,” she said. “Our challenge is to offer resources that are needed to achieve academic excellence and address the levels of mental anguish we’re seeing among our students, especially young girls.”

According to Moore, schools should work with parents to increase the sense of family and community for students. The state should also increase health education and access to needed health services, including mental health and substance use prevention services.

“My goal is to move to school-based health centers as a centralized source for all things health that would work in conjunction with parents and families,” she said. “No matter what we do through our schools, though, it has to start with family.”

Sen. James Libby, R-Cumberland, took issue with the direction the Maine Department of Education (DOE) is headed, especially regarding student academic assessments that led the U.S. Department of Education to threaten to withhold funding from the Department.

However, it’s how the State approaches best student mental health practices that drew the most ire from Libby. He cited Maine’s “Whole Student Approach” framework, which is based on the Ohio State University model that stresses the importance of family and community partnerships. The problem, he said, is that Maine completely disregarded the family and left it out when Maine DOE developed its own student mental health model.

“The first thing that you’ll notice about it – and I think this is startling … the family is not even mentioned,” he said of the State’s approach. “There is this belief by some that the family’s inclusion is apparently something less than the expertise that others can provide, in particular [the] DOE.”

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