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The State of School Security Spending: Here’s How States Have Poured $900 Million Into Student Safety Since the Parkland Shooting

By Carolyn Phenicie | August 20, 2018

Update, Aug. 28: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy approved the legislature’s proposal to ask for voters’ approval for a new bond for school safety upgrades, but limited the total to $500 million. If approved by voters, $350 million would be used for school security upgrades and district career and technical education programs. 
 
Correction, Aug. 28: Connecticut added $10 million in school security, funded through newly-issued bonds, in May. Totals in this story have been updated to reflect that additional spending.

The response to the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was immediate. Students across the country, led by Stoneman Douglas survivors, walked out of school to call for gun control. President Donald Trump alternately mused about more gun control and the need to arm teachers. Major retail outlets stopped selling guns.

In the halls of capitols across the country, lawmakers were opening state pocketbooks. Legislators in at least 26 states poured at least $960 million into school safety programs this year in the wake of the Parkland shooting and additional shootings in MarylandTexas, and elsewhere.

The amounts ranged widely by state, from $300,000 in Missouri to $400 million in Florida. They include only what’s being spent this year, though some states allocated a larger amount over a few years. Most of the money was spent on security upgrades and school resource officers, but the tally also includes funding allocated for mental health programs, violence prevention, emergency planning, and anonymous phone and texting tip lines.

Colorado lawmakers, for instance, poured $35 million into school resource officers and security upgrades.

“School site safety is more important than roads and bridges [or expanding educational programs]. … If we transport them on good roads and pay for their education but we cannot keep them safe, we have failed,” state Sen. James Wilson, a Republican who sponsored the legislation, said, according to Chalkbeat.

This overall calculation, based on a search of news articles and state budget documents, is a rough estimate that may have missed some grants and may include funding that can be used for higher education or other public buildings. Some states also would require matching grants from school districts.

The calculation does not include tabulations of pre-Parkland school safety appropriations or dollars allocated for other purposes that schools now may use for school safety. Alabama lawmakers, for instance, in April passed a law that allows technology funding to be used for school safety, and in Maine, a new law gives priority to safety upgrade projects funded through the state’s school renovation fund.

Still more funding could be coming: Massachusetts lawmakers, after hurriedly passing a delayed budget in late July, didn’t take up Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to add $72 million in new safety spending, though they could consider it later this year. And in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to decide whether to present voters with a proposal to float a $1 billion bond, $450 million of which would go to security upgrades.

If both of those proposals are approved, the total spending nationwide would top $1.4 billion.

Four state legislatures didn’t meet this year, including Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May released a set of safety recommendations that he estimated will cost $110 million, $30 million of which will require new funding.

The federal government poured money into school safety this year, too, and school districts have added their own dollars, with some even floating new bonds to do so.

The uptick in spending is “encouraging,” said Jake Parker, director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, a trade group.

“The No. 1 problem as far as addressing school facility [security] is and has been available funding. It’s been difficult for that to be made a priority when there are so many other competing priorities” and states in recent years have cut education spending, he said.

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The funding is a shift from reactions to past mass school shootings, experts said.

After the 1999 Columbine shooting, for instance, more focus was on students and interventions like requiring new school codes of conduct, expanding suspension and expulsion policies, and mandating information sharing among districts, law enforcement, and the juvenile justice system, said Jennifer Thomsen, director of the knowledge and research team at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States.

Not everyone is convinced the new laws, with their emphasis on security upgrades, are the right idea.

“The whole mantra here in policy, at all levels — local, state, and federal — has been: Do something, do anything, do it fast, and do it differently. That philosophy does not make good public policy,” said Ken Trump, a school security expert of no relation to the president.

Although some common school security upgrades, like routing all visitors through one entrance, are a good idea, the state laws passed aren’t emphasizing other best practices like emergency planning, behavioral interventions, and staff training, Trump said.

“It’s not giving the 100 percent guarantee that people perceive it may be,” he said.

Civil rights advocates have long raised concerns about increased law enforcement presence in schools, and some rushed legislation has led to unintended consequences.

In Florida, Trump said, a new state law requires parents to disclose to schools when students access mental health services. But they didn’t specify more than that, and the state Department of Education has left it to districts to decide, leading to questions about what must be disclosed and how the information can be used or shared, local news reported.

And some states may simply be offering too much: In Wisconsin, for instance, lawmakers authorized $100 million for security upgrades. But as of late July, school districts had requested only $55 million. The attorney general’s office will let districts apply for the remaining $45 million, to be used for mental health training for staff, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

Emphasizing school security is a way to deflect from tougher political debates, like gun control or arming teachers, Trump said.

Trump, who testifies on behalf of schools after security incidents, said that in the cases he’s worked, whether child abduction, sexual assault, or mass shootings, the complaints always center on “allegations of failures of people, procedures, and systems, not hardware or products. But the funding that’s coming out is skewed very heavily to the hardware and the products with very little to the people side, which is where we see the gaps,” he said.

The security upgrades are an essential first step in a “multifaceted crisis” and are particularly important to protect elementary and middle schools, where most attacks have been perpetrated by outsiders, Parker said.

“To the extent that this is something that can be done on a more bipartisan basis, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

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