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April 8, 2013

HAYDEN: 9-year-old lobbyist weighs in on school safety

INDIANAPOLIS — Senate Bill 1 shot to the forefront last week, after it was amended by the House education committee with a provision that mandates every public school in Indiana would be required to have someone on staff armed with a loaded gun during school hours.

I was in the back of the crowded committee room when the amendment was offered. The immediate physical reaction was interesting: Some people leaned forward, nodding their head in their affirmation. Others recoiled in horror.

Sen. Pete Miller, the freshman Republican from Hendricks County who authored the bill, could see it too. I asked him about it later, and he said it was a small but vivid reminder about “how polarizing” the debate over guns could be.

The gun mandate wasn’t in Miller’s original bill, and he doubts it will stay there as the bill moves through the final weeks of the legislative process.

So he’s been focused instead on what Senate Bill 1 originally set out to do: First, create a $10 million matching grant fund that school districts could tap to hire law enforcement officers specially trained in school safety and, second, set up a task force of experts to study what works best to keep kids safe in schools.

Without the gun-mandate amendment, the bill is a lot less controversial. But it is no less in need of some serious consideration in the wake of the tragic killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.

“This isn’t an academic issue,” said Miller, the father of three school-age children. “We all worry about the safety of the environment our children are in.”

Miller is hoping for some thoughtful debate as the bill moves forward, so he’s been listening to many voices. One of the most thoughtful voices he’s heard, he said, is that of Joshua Fairchild, who recently came to lobby Miller in support of Senate Bill 1.

Fairchild isn’t a registered lobbyist, but he does represent a special interest group: school children. The 9-year-old is a third-grader at Pine Tree Elementary School in Hendricks County and a Webelo Scout with Pack 391 in Avon.

Joshua surveyed his school friends and his Webelo Den on what they thought of having an armed law enforcement officer in school to protect them. Both Miller and Joshua’s father, Mark Fairchild, thought the answer was going to be a resounding “Yes.”

Instead, the response was more nuanced. In a meeting in Miller’s Statehouse office last week, Joshua told the state senator that he and his friends already feel safe in their schools, but would also support Senate Bill 1’s original intent of putting police officers in schools. Joshua also told Miller that he had some amendments of his own that he and his friends would like to add.

Here they are, altered only to correct spelling:

n “Their gun should not be showing and they should not be in a police uniform so little kids don’t get scared.

n “They should be teaching classes and doing other things for kids and not looking mean all day.

n “They should have special training to be nice and helpful with the kids.”

Miller told me Joshua may be “the most effective lobbyist I’ve met.”

Unlike the many, many paid lobbyists, Joshua won’t be in the Statehouse over the next few weeks as the final version of Senate Bill 1 is debated. He has to go to school. But here’s hoping his call for a thoughtful approach to school safety is heeded.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indiana

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