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Wisconsin Senate chamber file photo (copy)

The Wisconsin Senate chamber

Wisconsin schools could obtain grants from the state to upgrade building security or train staff on safety measures under a $100 million school safety package passed Tuesday by the state Senate.

All but four Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the legislation after they spent more than an hour chiding Republicans for refusing to include stricter gun regulations in the effort to protect children. Several Democrats who voted in favor of the bill said it didn't do enough, but was a step in the right direction. 

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said she would feel "empty" at the end of the night. Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the bill takes "a baby step when giant leaps and bounds are needed."

"Part of the disappointment in Gov. Walker's safety plan is that it doesn’t address what the threat is that is causing those places to be unsafe, the fact that firearms and guns are in the hands of those who should not have access to firearms," Shilling said.

Shilling and other Democrats referenced the thousands of students who rallied last week in support of stricter gun laws and said lawmakers are "not doing enough" for them.  

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, rebuffed Democrats' attempts to amend the bill with measures including universal background checks, a ban on bump stocks and reinstating a 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases.

"I don’t disagree that this is a national issue and a national debate that needs to continue and it will continue, but I’m also not going to pretend we’re going to solve that in the Wisconsin state Senate this evening," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald was the only Republican to speak on the issue. 

The legislation now goes to the Assembly, which is expected to take it up on Thursday. Earlier Tuesday, an Assembly committee heard public testimony on a set of school safety proposals that largely mirror what the Senate passed later that evening. 

The bills introduced in the Assembly earlier this week come directly from Gov. Scott Walker, who called on lawmakers last week to pass the legislation in a special session. What followed was a series of procedural disagreements between the Senate and Assembly. 

Instead of adopting the same proposals introduced in the Assembly, Fitzgerald attached a modified proposal to an existing Senate bill. 

The Senate plan mirrors much of what Walker had proposed. Both would create an Office of School Safety within the state Department of Justice. The office would develop best practices for school safety plans and offer training and resources to schools. It would also ensure that schools share blueprints of their buildings with local law enforcement. Both proposals would also implement additional requirements for school safety plans currently required under state law.

Under both plans, the Office of School Safety would administer a one-time $100 million grant program, allocated from the state's general fund, to fund building improvements, school resource officers and training opportunities. Under the Senate version, the grant money could not be used to pay salaries of armed officers, but it could be used to train them. 

Any training offered through the Office of School Safety would include trauma-informed care practices, under both bills.

The Senate bill also dropped language that would have allowed schools to receive grant funding for three years — at gradually decreasing levels —without having to resubmit applications.

The Senate eliminated a requirement that schools notify a parent or guardian within 48 hours of a bullying incident that involves their child. Schools would still be required to notify parents or guardian, without a set time requirement.

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The Senate also scrapped a provision included in Walker's plan which would allow schools to share live streams of video surveillance with local law enforcement without violating pupil privacy laws.

Under both proposals, all mandatory reporters of child abuse would also be made mandatory reporters of threats of school violence.

Generational and geographic divides emerged at several points throughout the debate on the legislation.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, noted that students today have grown up participating in active shooter drills. When he grew up, he said, students only worried about fire and tornado drills. Larson talked about his experience having been a senior in high school when the 1999 Columbine shooting occurred. 

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, voted for the bill but said she was "irritated, frustrated and angry" that it acts as if children are only in danger within school buildings. She listed several gun deaths in Milwaukee, including the 2014 playground shooting that killed 10-year-old Sierra Guyto.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma who is a Democratic candidate for governor, said Democrats have failed to recognize that "firearms mean something very different in different parts of the state." As a farmer, she said, a gun is an important tool as a humane way to kill animals when necessary. And living in a rural area with a small police presence, she said, some families need guns to protect themselves. Vinehout joined republicans in rejecting several Democratic amendments. 

The only Democrats to vote against the bill were Sens. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay; Mark Miller, D-Monona; Fred Risser, D-Madison; and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

A group of nine students from area high schools and colleges stood silently outside the doorways as senators exited the Senate chamber after the vote. Most wore orange t-shirts, signifying their support of gun control measures.

Grito Vandenbrook, a Madison East High School student, said students are "tired of seeing this inaction." Vandenbrook stood with his East High classmate Emma Falk and Middleton High School student Peter Opitz. All three said the policy change that is most important to them is the implementation of universal background checks. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.