The federal approach to school safety is shifting. This shift was first seen at the federal summit on bullying, held August 12, with the announcement of the Safe and Supportive Schools grant, a program under the Successful, Safe and Healthy Students program in the Blueprint for Reform that focuses on the overall environment of a school. Climate surveys are the cornerstone of the grant, as the Department of Education is—for the first time—asking students and families to provide feedback on their school atmosphere. Although the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has yet to be approved, the department is forging ahead with a $27 million pilot grant and hopes for a 500 percent funding increase upon ESEA approval. The grant's predecessor, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools (SDFS) program, was eliminated in July 2010.
"School safety has to go beyond measuring violence and crime," says Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the Department of Education. "A student needs to feel like they're valued, belong, and be in a good emotional and psychological state to learn."
Although 32 states currently collect responses from students and families regarding school climate, the DOE hopes this grant will support this initiative in a more "advanced and robust manner," says Jennings. States awarded the money will be required to give 80 percent of the funding to the schools with the most need.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, worries that this new grant is taking away from important aspects seen in the SDFS program. "The department has taken a radical shift in policy," says Trump. "It's very skewed, specifically to bullying and climate. They have redefined school safety and have minimized violence aspects [in favor of] civil behavior instead."
According to Trump, the pilot program isn't a sufficient replacement for the funds lost. And no one knows what will be funded under the Safe and Supportive Schools program because it has yet to be passed by Congress.
"The question is, is it helping the administrator on the front lines to help kids?" says Trump.
Time will tell.
States allotted money from the Safe and Supportive Schools grant program were scheduled to be announced in late September after this issue went to print. More information can be found at www.ed.gov.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act, recently introduced in the Senate, proposes forbidding bullying in school based not only on race, religion and disability, but also on sexual orientation. Schools would be asked to report all incidents to the DOE. Supporters, such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, believe incidents must be specifically identified to have them effectively handled. Focus on the Family and other conservative groups feel gay activists are pushing their agenda in schools and that bullying policies should not focus on individual characteristics.