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The Impact of Sandy Hook on School Safety Funding

Mar 26

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Tuesday, March 26, 2013  RssIcon

“We have to make sure we learn from this awful tragedy [Sandy Hook Shooting] as communities and as a nation.  Every community needs to appraise its values and look at whether the community, parents, business leaders, faith-based leaders, political leaders, and schools are doing all that they can to keep our nation’s children safe from harm.” - Secretary Arne Duncan on December 21, 2012

Unfortunately, we have system of government that is too often reactionary as politics usually prevent it from being proactive when it comes to important issues.  Indeed, in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, you would be hard pressed to find a politician that is not ringing the bell when it comes to making schools safer.  Certainly the aforementioned quote by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan is accurate in indicating that school safety is a multi-faceted problem that requires community-wide solutions.  However, pointing the fingers at local governments, community organizations and the private sector does seem to avoid the question of the role of the federal government when it comes to preventing such tragedies in the future.

In order to look forward to what resources the federal government may be able to provide for school safety, we must first look backward to our own history.  With most states facing severe budget crises over the last decade, schools across the country looked to the federal government to fund school safety and security initiatives.   Public schools across the country were barely able to afford books and other essential tools to educate students let alone invest in security infrastructure.  Fortunately, there was federal funding available through Title II under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (Safe and Drug Free Schools Program) that flowed to states and onto local districts for school safety equipment and programming.  In addition, there were several competitive federal grant programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice that addressed school safety and security.  These popular grant programs included Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS), Cops Secure Our Schools (SOS), Safe Schools, Health Students (SS/HS) and Integration of Schools and Mental Health Systems.  In addition, there was Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence), which provided short-term aid and resources to schools that experience a major tragedy.  When viewing this set of programs in totality, it amounted to robust federal funding for school safety.

Many years removed from the events of Columbine, the focus at the federal level subtly shifted to the United States falling behind other countries in educational achievement and advancement.  Over the span of just a few years, as funding was pushed into Race To The Top and other initiatives aimed at educational achievement, the school safety funding began to fade away.  Title II of ESEA was not reauthorized and the Safe and Drug Free Schools formula funding vanished.  The U.S. Department of Education (ED) no longer had the discretionary funds to support REMS, SS/HS and the other competitive programs.  School safety still is a significant priority for the Promise Neighborhoods Program, which is a competitive grant program administered by ED that intends to revitalize cradle-to-career and wrap around services for young people in low-income communities with high crime rates.  However, considering that eligibility for Promise Neighborhoods requires the formation of extensive community-wide coalitions and funding is limited to 15-20 awards per year, the impact relatively isolated to a few dozen communities across the country.  On the other hand, Title II schools safety funds and the aforementioned competitive grant programs were designed to have a much broader impact and flow directly to local school districts.

As previously mentioned, our government is reactionary.  Suddenly, you may hear President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders talking about these now defunct school safety programs.  The President put together a comprehensive plan to address gun violence, with school safety being one of the primary tenets.  The plan calls for putting 1,000 resource officers into schools across the country as well as security equipment.  While the funding for such an initiative is yet to be debated as part of the ongoing budget negotiations, there is reason to believe some of these programs may return.  COPS SOS was an extremely popular program that funded such personnel and equipment and we are more likely to see such a program return as opposed to the creation of an entirely new funding mechanism.  The plan also calls for improved mental health services as well as anti-bullying/violence prevention strategies to be implemented in 8,000 schools across the country.  These were some of the primary goals of the SS/HS and the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program.  The plan also calls for $30 million in funding to the states to improve emergency preparedness in schools, a central purpose of the now extinct REMS program.  Of course, they would be wise to actually model REMS in that the funding flowed directly to local districts, where it tends to do the most good.  Since the federal government is more likely to recycle than to reinvent the wheel, It is likely that some of these grant programs may be resurrected.  Furthermore, considering improving school safety is much less politically divisive than gun restrictions, if any component of the President's Plan gains traction it will be in this arena. 

Let us get back to the state, local and community level, which is what Secretary Duncan was targeting in his statement.  After all, this is not an assessment or commentary on how the federal government works and its effectiveness.  I'll leave those judgments to the reader.  However, this is an attempt to read between the lines as to what we can expect for school safety funding in the wake of Sandy Hook.  One area that may be tapped going forward involves federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  While it is federal funding, it is administered by states and much of it flows directly to local municipalities for terrorism prevention and emergency preparedness activities.  DHS has always maintained that public schools, as an extension of local municipalities, can be included in local projects and benefit from the funding.  Considering that funding can be spent on security equipment for target hardening , surveillance and other local needs, the possibilities are endless.  The issue is that local municipalities have significant latitude in the projects and items they fund with DHS funding.  The various competing interests amongst local municipal agencies can make accessing this funding source very difficult. If anything, perhaps the tragedy at Sandy Hook will elevate the importance of schools in local municipal emergency management and planning efforts.  In many communities, schools serve as a centralized community meeting center and may even have a role as a command center site.  In that respect, schools may have more leverage than ever to approach municipal officials in charge of deciding which local priorities will receive DHS funding and request that their safety and security priorities be considered. 

In the end, there are no guarantees as to how we will see federal funding adjust to the tragedy at Sandy Hook.  While there is a good chance some extinct school safety grant programs may return, everything is subject to the ongoing budget and gun violence negotiations in Congress.  In the meantime, the ability of local school districts to insert themselves into DHS funding may be the most realistic option until further notice.

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