A bill aimed at preventing education funding to go to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging frameworks in K-12 schools would also remove language protecting “trauma-informed” methods in Kentucky schools if the bill remains unchanged as it makes its way through the General Assembly.
Part of recently-filed Senate Bill 93 from Sen. Stephen Meredith (R-Leitchfield) would remove language around the approach that places an emphasis on supporting all students, regardless of their experiences, if enacted. However, some advocates say such language added to state law with bipartisan support in 2019 fosters a welcoming and supportive environment for Kentucky students.
A guide from the Kentucky Department of Education defines a trauma-informed school as “one in which all students feel safe, welcomed and supported, and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a schoolwide basis is at the center of its educational mission.”
Meredith told reporters on Wednesday that trauma-informed approaches in state law could give a backdoor way to support a “DEI agenda,” and he feels the original language could be enhanced for more parental involvement. The bill was assigned to the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.
“If you look at the original legislation where you’re building these groups to take care of kids in trauma, what’s conspicuously missing from that? Parents,” the senator said. “There’s no parental involvement at all. That should be a key part of this entire process.”
But the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a policy advocate organization, voiced opposition to SB 93 for “a multitude of reasons,” including the elimination of trauma-informed care in schools. In a statement to the Kentucky Lantern, KSVT said trauma-informed care helps people navigate the impacts of dangerous experiences and such approaches are “recommended in schools by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ‘to foster a safe, stable, and understanding learning environment for all students and staff.’
“Couldn’t it be said with the utmost certainty that all parents and students want a safe, stable, learning environment?” KSVT said. “As an organization that values research and advocates for high quality education for all, we find the legislative attempt to strike an evidence-based approach to supporting the mental health of young people problematic.”
Brent McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said in an email that education research has made “it very clear that legislation like SB 93 would absolutely prevent schools from creating the sort of safe and welcoming learning conditions necessary for students to succeed.”
“As teachers, we have chosen education as a career because we want to help every student achieve their dreams, and this is not possible if the state makes it against the law to have welcoming classrooms where they feel safe and have a sense of belonging,” McKim said.
How ‘trauma-informed approaches’ made it into state law
Trauma-informed approaches were a key part of the School Safety and Resiliency Act, which the General Assembly passed in 2019. The law was in response to a school shooting at Marshall County High School, in which two students were killed and more than a dozen injured. The Republican-backed measure received bipartisan support — including a signature from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
The primary sponsor of the school safety act, Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) said on Thursday that he had not read the entirety of Meredith’s bill, but was aware of the provision that would remove trauma-informed language from statute. He added that he hoped Meredith would get feedback from school superintendents and mental health professionals about his legislation.
Wise said the original school safety bill combined a “softening approach,” which strengthened support for mental health in schools, with a “hardening approach” that expanded resources to have School Resource Officers, or law enforcement officers, on school grounds. Wise, who was the chair of the Senate Education Committee at the time, called the school safety bill “very effective” since its passage.
“What I’m hoping for this legislative session is funding,” Wise said. “We’ve got to make sure in the budget that we put money towards our mental health service providers, as well as our SROs, and I think this is the perfect time for us to be able to do it with a budget — hopefully the House presents to us — that has all of that in there.”
In Kentucky, budget legislation originates from the House. Republican lawmakers have not filed their proposal so far.
Additionally, KSVT praised the inclusion of trauma-informed language in 2019, calling it “a huge step in making schools safer and more supportive for students.” The team noted Meredith’s bill would eliminate wording that says “schools must provide a place for students to feel safe and supported to learn throughout the school day.”
“If schools aren’t doing that, then how do we expect to raise test scores and achieve the academic and other educational goals we all want?” KSVT asked.
Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said in a Friday statement that he is “optimistic that leadership in both chambers will, at the end of the day, actually reinforce and increase supports for building resiliency among young people.” As a former Kentucky educator, Brooks added that “addressing trauma is the first step in addressing reading and math proficiency.” When efforts that support resilience for Kentucky students are backed with budget funding and policy enhancements, “then this issue will become a core achievement of the 2024 session,” Brooks said.
“Mental health challenges are at an unprecedented level for our kids,” he added. “Practices, policies and commitments which strengthen resilience and mitigate adversity are not icing on the cake — they are the cake. Along with the direct and positive impact that resilience supports yield, they are also indispensable as boosts for academic achievement.”
Bills aimed at DEI in General Assembly
Meredith’s bill is the second in the Kentucky Senate to be filed this session regarding DEI standards. Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson filed Senate Bill 6, which would allow students and employees to sue public universities and colleges in Kentucky on grounds they were discriminated against for rejecting “divisive concepts.”
Nationwide, DEI initiatives have become a target of conservative politicians who argue such frameworks favor some demographic groups, usually minority groups, over others. DEI concepts have been hotly debated in other states, such as Florida, where Republican presidential candidate and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law last year that prevents public universities and colleges from spending money on DEI programs.
In addition to scrubbing trauma-informed language from state law, Meredith’s bill would also prevent school districts and charter schools from requiring “any statement, pledge, or oath, other than to uphold general and federal law, the United States Constitution, and the Constitution of Kentucky” as part of their employment, including any recruitment, hiring, promotion or disciplinary processes and divert education funding from DEI programs.
Senate Democratic Floor Leader Gerald Neal, of Louisville, said Thursday afternoon that Senate Democrats were reviewing both anti-DEI bills. He said the ideas were part of a broad “national strategy” and Democrats are looking to have further discussions with Republicans about the intention behind the bills throughout the session.
Neal said Democrats had not sat down with Meredith to have an in-depth conversation about his bill. The minority floor leader also referred to comments both he and Republican Senate President Robert Stivers recently made on the Senate floor about working together on legislation that supports Kentuckians.
“One of the things that we want to do is not get ahead of ourselves,” Neal said. “One of the things that we do is we talk to the sponsors of these things … because we want to really understand the intentionality of the sponsor of the legislation and give the opportunity to hear and respond.”