AUGUSTA — Nearly six years after a consultant urged lawmakers to make a state school safety center their top priority for reducing the risk of a school shooting, the Maine Department of Education is moving forward with a plan to do so.

Education officials told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Wednesday that a report on the center, with recommendations on how to create it, would be the top priority for two new employees – hired specifically to focus on school safety and security – when they start their jobs on Monday.

Some former lawmakers who pushed for the creation of a center years ago voiced frustration over the long delay.

“We all know there is a problem here, especially with our more rural schools, and here we are nearly a decade later and still nobody has taken the bull by the horns,” said David Trahan, a former Republican legislator who worked on school security issues and is now executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He said the focus instead has been on trying to create new gun control laws, which have all failed in recent years.

Trahan said lawmakers, the DOE and the previous administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage were all aware of the concerns raised in a report by Safe Havens International, a consultant the Legislature hired in 2013. Part of the report was kept confidential because it exposed security risks at school buildings, most of them in poorer and more rural school districts, Trahan said Thursday.

Retired Maine State Police Sgt. Jonathan Shapiro and Rob Susi, a former school resource officer with the Falmouth Police Department, will prepare the safety center report and present it to the Legislature by Feb. 15, said Chelsey Fortin-Trimble, the DOE’s new director of policy and government affairs, at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

“The two people that were hired we hired specifically for their expertise and their experience in the field,” Fortin-Trimble said. “Our priority is for those two gentlemen to focus solely on that report.”

The two will be paid from a $2.88 million federal grant – specifically meant to improve school safety – that will allow their work to continue for about four years. How the work would be funded after that was unclear.

The school safety center would be a resource for schools to help them identify weaknesses and best practices for security. Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, who sponsored a resolution in 2019 to push the idea again, said Thursday he thinks the benefits of the safety center could go well beyond protecting against a mass shooting.

He said domestic violence, custodial issues with parents who might remove a child from school when they don’t have custody, or helping schools better guard against bullying are among the topics the center could address.

“I think it pays off in a lot of other ways beyond the whole firearms thing,” Corey said.

The Safe Havens International study and report came after lawmakers passed a resolve in 2013 requiring a survey and study of security issues at a sampling of Maine schools.

That was a year after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 26 people dead – 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 and six adult staff members.

“In our opinion, the creation of (a school safety) center could achieve more improvement in the safety and effectiveness for Maine schools than billions of dollars in security upgrades,” the 2014 report from Safe Havens said.

Since the Sandy Hook shooting there have been at least 142 additional school shootings in the U.S., according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for stronger gun control laws and tracks gun violence events.

Lawmakers who support the creation of the safety center said many of Maine’s most rural schools were built in the 1970s and were not designed to current security standards. But they also noted the center’s role would probably not be focused on fortifying school buildings but on making policy and procedure recommendations that would improve security.

About 50 schools in Maine are also used as polling places, and the DOE delivered a report to the Legislature in December that included recommendations on how to keep students safe during voting.

The committee is expected to take up the issue of polling places in schools when it meets next week.

The education committee’s House chairwoman, Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said she wanted to consider whether voting days should be made into holidays or whether they should be teacher workshop days in the schools that have polling places, which would allow the schools to avoid some of the concerns around mixing the voting public with students.

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