Every legislative session, the General Assembly looks for ways it can improve the lives of our children, both in the classroom and when it comes to their safety.
This year, the House and Senate passed several new laws that further both of these goals.
One of the more widely publicized will establish a permanent, independent panel to review those cases in which a child either died or was severely injured as a result of abuse or neglect.
This codifies a task force Gov. Beshear appointed last summer, ensuring it will remain active in future administrations. Its 20 members include legislators and representatives of such groups as the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association; family resource & youth services centers; family courts; and pediatricians.
They will take a hard look at each case, to see if state and local officials could have done more to prevent the death or serious injury. Tragically, the number is sizeable; the latest annual report by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services shows there were 386 children between 2008 and 2012 who fit this criteria. A little more than half of those had had prior involvement with the cabinet.
According to the organization Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, the number of child abuse reports has gone up significantly in the last year, from nearly 49,000 in 2011 to 54,500 in 2012. Officials were able to document that more than 21,000 Kentucky children were abused or neglected last year, and more than 6,000 of them had to be removed from their home.
With April recognized nationally as Child Abuse Prevention Month, now is the ideal time to re-emphasize the need to do all we can to stop this crime. If you know of a case, please call the state’s child-protection hot line at 1-877-597-2331.
In other safety measures, the General Assembly cracked down on child pornographers and those who involve minors in the use of dangerous synthetic drugs.
We also worked to make our schools safer. Building on the findings of a task force I authorized in the wake of December’s Newtown, Conn., tragedy, we now require each school to have a proper safety plan in place and regular drills. Law enforcement will also be encouraged to be even better prepared in the event of a school emergency.
Another school-safety measure from this year will increase the use of EpiPens, which can stop severe, life-threatening allergic reactions. It’s estimated that almost six million children across the country have food allergies, and 15 percent of those have had a reaction in a school setting.
Under this law, these children will be called upon to have an EpiPen with them or with qualified school personnel. Schools will also be asked to have at least two of these devices on-site.
In academic matters, one of this year’s most high-profile new laws lays the groundwork to increase the high school dropout age from 16 to 18. The timetable will be determined by the school districts themselves, and when 55 percent make the move, the rest of the state’s high schools will then be required to follow. This should significantly reduce the estimated 6,000 dropouts we see every year.
On the flip side, two other new laws will help those students who are able to graduate early. We want to make sure their KEES scholarships, which are funded by the lottery, are not penalized because they did not stay all four years of high school. Another new scholarship fund, meanwhile, will help them attend college during what would have been their senior year.
Given the fact that this legislative session was not focused on budgetary matters – that only occurs in even-numbered years – I think the General Assembly was able to cover a considerable amount of ground for our youngest generation. Next year, I hope we can do even more.