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Special Report: The State of Security: School Safety Gets the Ax

Districts are struggling to maintain safety and security when budgets are cut.
Detroit Public Schools K9 Officer John Greene and his dog, Nitro, pursue suspects who broke into Thomas Cooley High School on a Sunday evening in April. Three teens were caught and arrested.

A new informal federal survey has found that for many districts, budget cuts have had a profound effect on school safety and security measures. Administrators have been forced to cut safety and security staffing and programs, reorganize security departments and find alternative sources of funding in order to maintain levels of safety and security within their schools.

The Center for School Preparedness, a department within the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the federal Department of Education, surveyed several of its e-mail subscriber lists made up of school security chiefs, K12 federal grant winners, state safe school center directors and others in the field June 22-30 "to better understand how schools are working to ensure school safety despite a limited or nonexistent budget," according to the subsequent report. Officials from 25 states responded. While their titles and locations were noted, respondents were otherwise kept anonymous.

Layoffs Common

Although survey participants reported a variety of strategies to address budget cuts, "widespread layoffs appear to be the most typical response," with many reporting extensive cuts of school resource officers or intervention and prevention specialists, if not eliminating entire such departments. "Schools are being prompted to decide whether to simply reduce these services, or to eliminate them altogether," the report states.

Examples included a New Mexico district that eliminated seven full-time security positions and expects further layoffs in 2010-2011, and a Florida district that has cut a total of 30 positions in the past two years.

A memorial with an apple, stuffed animals and flowers is erected for slain teacher Jennifer Paulson across the street from Birney Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash. Paulson was fatally shot last February as she arrived at school for work.

In the 34,000-student Indianapolis (Ind.) Public Schools, which has its own police force, officials made significant layoffs as part of $26.8 million in budget cuts for the 2010-2011 school year. "I'm down to 67 officers from 87 last year," says IPS chief of police Steven Garner. "It's terribly unfortunate. We certainly hope we can recover in the future, but for now we have to make do with what we have."

In the 100,000-student DeKalb County (Ga.) Schools, administrators cut 11 officers from the district public safety force, reducing it to 75. "We believe the cuts will not result in unsafe conditions," says Dekalb's associate superintendent for support services Tim Freeman, acknowledging that the district's student enrollment growth has reached a plateau, making the cuts easier to absorb. "But, it was still difficult because those folks were part of our district family, many of them high-performing employees. So we're getting more done with less, but that's a skill that all of us administrators need in our bag of tricks."

Furlough days were also reported in the survey, but many acknowledged this was effectively a stopgap solution prior to inevitable layoffs, unless adequate funding is restored. Five respondents from five different states reported that budget cuts were so severe that their security department, organization or office "has ceased to operate." If safety and security departments were not eliminated altogether, many reported that they were significantly reorganizing departments and job responsibilities to make up for the loss of staff, designating certain schools as "high priority," for example, or otherwise realigning security procedures or routines to make the most use of fewer staff members.

At IPS, for example, "social workers, administrators, teachers, custodians and everyone else has to step up because we still have to make the schools safe, regardless of the budget that I have," says Garner, noting that his district will also have to rely on local law enforcement more than ever.

Perceived Level of Safety

After a man is gunned down at the Ford Elementary School parking lot in St. Louis last April, a woman took her niece and daughter out of school. She and the girls walk past police evidence markers on their way back home.

Even if budget cuts did not directly affect district security and safety initiatives, many respondents described how cuts in other areas negatively impacted their schools' "perceived level of safety." For example, a California respondent reported that turning off their district's outside lighting in evenings to reduce electricity costs resulted in increased vandalism and burglary.

Similarly, other respondents claimed that even when personnel cuts were made in departments other than safety and security, the loss of many of these positions, such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, teachers and custodians, has had a negative impact because of the vital roles that these employees play in maintaining a positive and healthy school environment and preventing potential hazards and threats to security.

Feds Reallocating Funds

William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, says the survey was purely informational for his department and "not scientific." Nonetheless, the results come as no surprise to experts in the field. "This report reflects what I'm hearing every day from districts regarding their safety and security measures," says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. "People are shaking their heads and saying 'we're out of options.'"

Trump sees a perfect storm for the demise of most school security programs: most prominently, the overall school budget cuts because of the current recession, but also the gradual decline over many years, and recent total reallocation, of the state grant funding for the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program.

The Obama administration's federal budget included many education reforms, among them a reallocating of the SDFSC state grant funds. "While reducing violence and drug use in and around schools is a compelling goal?this program is poorly matched to achieving that goal," states the budget summary.

In February, teacher David Benke became a national hero. He describes his altercation with a gunman who shot two students at Deer Creek Middle School in the Jeffco Public Schools in Golden, Colorado.

Effective July 1, the Department of Education has cut the entire $295 million budget for state formula grants, which are paid out to states annually on a per-student basis, instead allocating the funds to a competitive national grant program called Successful, Safe and Healthy Students, a $410 million fund that consolidates several school grants together. "The problem with that," says Trump, "is that with all of these budget cuts and layoff s, states and districts may not have the staff to apply for such a competitive grant, or to implement new measures should one be awarded," he says.

One survey respondent from a large California district illustrated the conundrum: while supplies for emergency kits for their schools were purchased, because of staff layoffs, there were no personnel to assemble them. The same district planned to apply for a federal Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant, but expressed concern that they now had insufficient staff to draft the application, or to implement new activities should they be awarded the federal grant money.

"Reallocating these funds is removing the last lifeline many districts had. It's devastating," says Trump. As the report itself states, "The elimination of several significant funding sources (e.g. Title IV, Safe and Drug Free Schools) from both national and local budgets has also resulted in the elimination of entire programs that provided a framework for school safety and prevention eff orts."

But, Modzeleski disagrees with the dire assessment of the budget decision. "There isn't any evidence that what we were doing [with the SDFSC grants] was tremendously successful. We can be much more effective with these funds. We have a responsibility to taxpayers to fund programs that work."

Bleak Future?

"The progress made since Columbine has stalled in the past few years, and in the last year it has started to unravel," says Trump. "Unfortunately, I and my colleagues see the cuts continuing, until there is a high profile incident."

The survey came to a similar conclusion, stating, "For the most part, the future of funding is uncertain." Modzeleski again disagrees with this bleak forecast, however. "Having no money should not be an excuse to do nothing. There are things that are not costly that schools can and should do to maintain levels of safety," he says. "Crime in schools has been declining since 1992. There's evidence out there that the long-term trend is actually positive."