School safety, and competing resolutions that would create task forces to improve it, sparked debate in the Senate Tuesday.

2 senators battle over dueling school safety resolutions

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Government

School safety, and competing resolutions that would create task forces to improve it, sparked debate in the Senate Tuesday.

School safety, and competing resolutions that would create task forces to improve it, sparked debate in the Senate Tuesday.

On the day Gov. John Carney preached the impact of working together in his State of the State address, the Senate watched a tense interaction divided by party lines that one legislator called “childish behavior.”

The interaction between Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover, and Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark/Glasgow, and their similar education task force resolutions were enough to cause comment from a veteran lawmaker during the session.

“We either correct our own misbehaviors and go forward and serve the public as we’ve sworn to do, or we continue this childish, ‘I can one-up-you’ behavior,” said Sen. Dave Lawson, R- Marydel. If we continue that, we don’t serve our people. We only hurt them, and that we all should be ashamed of.”

The fracas began after a quick, smooth unanimous Senate vote Tuesday on a bill relating to educators donating days off to one another with a resolution that would create a task force focused on school discipline. 

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Senate Concurrent Resolution 117, sponsored by Buckson, who was an educator and is a member of the Senate Education Committee, would establish the Classroom Behavior and School Discipline Task Force.

The 25-person task force would be responsible for reporting findings and recommendations to improve student behavior in schools.

Fights, student bullying and disrespect to teachers are common tales in the legislature and at school board meetings. 

That has fueled a concern about school safety, which has led to schools and districts hiring more constable and school resource officers while implementing safety features into buildings, including metal detectors.

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So, it seemed like the resolution would be a hit.

Enter Senate Majority Leader Townsend. who proceeded to introduce Senate Concurrent Resolution 119. It would establish pretty much the same group Buckson’s bill would, but would be called the Student Behavior and School Climate Task Force.

Its goal would be to look at the causes and impact of student behavior issues on the student body. 

Another difference is Townsend’s bill would study teacher dissatisfaction. It cited a 2022 American Psychological Association study showing about 50% of teachers are thinking about quitting their job because of a negative school climate.

The introduction of Townsend’s legislation triggered the argument. 

Buckson said that while drafting his legislation, he was provided bipartisan support as well as help from both chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, both Democrats. 

But, there were some changes he was not willing to make. 

“When I was asked to change many parts of the original draft, I said yes,” he said. “However, when I was told by the majority leadership that I had to eliminate the minority party having an option to choose someone to represent us on the task force, I said no. When I was told to remove the word ‘discipline.’ I said no, you’re dancing around it. When I was told that leadership and not the task force members could choose who the chairs would be, I said no.”

Buckson said Townsend called him for a meeting less than two hours before the Senate hearing to tell him he had a competing resolution. 

Townsend essentially told him “you get on board with my resolution or you get run over,” which Buckson called “horse crap.”

“This is a bright example of what’s wrong with this place, and I mean that sincerely,” Buckson said. “Instead of helping our kids, we worry about who gets credit or who’s in control, and it’s a disservice to those who put us in the seats we occupy on their behalf and we should expect more from us but I guess not.”

He said the two resolutions are similar, but not the same. He described them as “cousins” and said his resolution would be “ours” and not “mine” like Townsend’s. 

“This is about education, it’s about our classrooms, it’s about the safety of our students and our teachers,” Lawson said, “and now we’re going to play games with it. I think that’s wrong… It is just a shame that we can’t sit down and work through these things, and put them together so that we can work together instead.”

Townsend noted that while the word “discipline” was taken out of his resolution’s task force name, it still is included in the bill.

He said students who misbehave are still entitled to empathy and shouldn’t just be removed or segregated from the behaving students because that would be regressive.

He said Buckson’s position on school discipline is “quintessential shoot first, aim second.”

“It disappoints me that you use the term segregate. That is absolutely not what is done,” Buckson said. “What is being done is recognizing right now that we have a very, very small percentage of individuals, and I’m talking less than 10 at times in an entire class and school are taking over the school in the classrooms, and if we have to, in order to protect the classroom instructor and the kids in that room, provide an alternative location within that actual space, then yes that’s what I stood for.”

Buckson said the people growing up in his generation had the same traumas and struggles that students today have, but the lack of discipline today is what’s different. 

“What’s lost is we’ve lost control,” Buckson said, “because we agree to your terms and the words used as if they sound good, and I don’t think they do.’

He said several times he was very bothered by Townsend’s use of “segregation” in painting the picture of Buckson’s goal.

Lawson and Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, both jumped after the initial debate, seemingly to cool things down and remind the Senate that it’s not about who sponsors a bill but that students and schools are safe.

“We should be better than what we’re seeing on CNN and MSNBC and Fox with all this argument that’s going with elected officials that are supposed to represent the people in their districts, the people in their states, the people in their communities,” Pettyjohn said. “This is very frustrating for somebody that respects the process and respects the institution that we’ve been elected to serve. I wish we could come together.”

Lawson said he’d like to see both resolutions laid on the table (not voted on) for the time being. 

They were not.

Townsend’s bill passed 14 “yes” votes, three “no” votes and three not voting.

Buckson’s bill failed when the Democrats he sought to work with abandoned him. It got six “yes” votes – all of the Republican senators – while all 14 Democrats did not vote.

Townsend’s SCR 119 now heads to the House for consideration.

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