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Congress set aside $1 billion after Parkland. Now schools are starting to use it

From panic buttons to metal detectors, communities take a page from Fort Knox

Communities around the country are beginning to spend the money that Congress designated for school safety in the wake of mass shootings last year. Above, the March for Our Lives drew young people to downtown D.C. in March 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Communities around the country are beginning to spend the money that Congress designated for school safety in the wake of mass shootings last year. Above, the March for Our Lives drew young people to downtown D.C. in March 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Amid the rolling farmland of southwest Iowa sits the 7,800-population town of Creston, where the school district boasts of a “state-of-the-art school safety and security system” with a command center to monitor nearly 200 cameras, or roughly one for every seven students.

But the school superintendent isn’t done yet, thanks to a $500,000 grant from a program Congress stuffed into an omnibus spending bill a year ago. He plans to buy mobile metal detectors that could also be set up at football games, a shooter alert system that can sense when a gun goes off in one of the three schools and notify police, a “panic button” system and a new entry system.

“We have a lot of money invested already in our safety and security, but this will really round out and really advance what we’re doing in terms of tightening up security,” superintendent Steve McDermott told Radio Iowa in December.

Communities across the country are starting to spend the first of nearly $1 billion over 10 years that Congress designated a year ago to improve school safety after the deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school — the only federal law to address mass shootings at schools.

Watch: A year later, how schools are starting to spend safety funds

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Most of the federal funds and the grant application process itself spawned response teams of law enforcement, mental health and school officials to help troubled students, training programs on violence prevention and assessments on how to make schools safer, a review of those grants found.

But the new law also has accelerated the country’s broader, more physical approach to what has been a uniquely American problem, by hardening of the nation’s schools with the kind of sally ports and surveillance equipment more closely associated with bank vaults or prisons.

The education sector of the U.S. market for security equipment and services is expected to stay around $2.8 billion through 2021, according to a widely cited analysis by IHS Markit, a global industry information firm. Voters are passing referendums to fund school security, and most state education departments offer school safety grants. The federal money is layered on top.

Joseph Erardi, the former school superintendent in Newtown, Connecticut, who oversaw the construction of a new Sandy Hook school after the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 first-graders and six educators, said superintendents feel an “inordinate amount of pressure to do something.”

“You don’t want your school to feel like corrections, yet you want to do your best to have a safe environment for teachers and kids,” Erardi said.

Schools are generally safe places, and a government study found that students are 87 times more likely to die by murder or suicide outside of school, said Bryan Warnick, a professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University who has written about school shootings. There’s no evidence such hardening makes schools safer, he said. Rather, it is correlated with increased fear among students and staff.

“And yet we have this climate of fear, and it makes these tiny districts in Iowa think they have to bend over backwards and create Fort Knox to keep their kids safe,” Warnick said.

Upgrading safety

Some local governments are using the money for the basics. Whitley County schools in Kentucky will spend $339,004 in federal funds to put 3M shatter-resistant film over some school doors and windows, buy handheld radios, put cameras in buses and increase the number of security cameras at each school, the News-Journal reported.

“It is going to be a big help,” superintendent John Siler told the Whitley County Board of Education in November. “It is going to allow us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do without this grant. We just couldn’t pull this much money out of the general fund.”

Other places are going beyond those basics, such as the Waxhaw Police Department and Union County schools, just south of Charlotte, North Carolina. The police plan to spend $106,875 in federal money to upgrade to the VirTra V300 firearms training simulator, a platform that gives officers a modified firearm and surrounds them with video of emergency scenarios. The grant also calls for eight local schools to be filmed for the system.

“Specific response to active shooter videos will be filmed in the schools and surrounding The Town of Waxhaw, and added to the Virtra to add a higher level of training and validation of the effectiveness not currently possible,” Waxhaw Police wrote in a presentation to the town board of commissioners.

As part of the same grant, Union County schools plan to use $283,398 for video doorbell systems for middle and high schools, up to $30,000 for two years of a “Proofpoint Social Media Threat Evaluator” that “looks for key words when it comes to social media” and notifies police when there could be a threat, and up to $36,000 for two years of a mobile app that administrators and school police officers can use in the event of an emergency.

In Mobile, Alabama, a $400,000 grant will go to integration of door locks, intercoms and security cameras, as well as installation of an LED lighting system in hallways and classrooms. Students will be trained on what each color means and how they will react, according to Fox affiliate WALA-TV.

‘How many more have to die?’: Protesters chant on Hill on Parkland anniversary

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Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, one of the most successful applicants, secured three grants under the law, totaling $1.3 million. A $500,000 grant would pay for training sessions for 700 teachers and 215 events to educate students, while an additional $379,346 will be spent to update training for threat assessment teams and school safety officers.

And $465,994 will enhance Broward County school video surveillance with analytic “smart” cameras that can recognize unusual activity and provide real-time alerts.

“The camera’s artificial intelligence will recognize movement and characteristics of people and vehicles,” the school district said. “If there is an unusual movement (such as jumping over a fence), it will alert the console viewers tasked with monitoring the cameras.”

Grant program

By early 2018, school shooting after school shooting in America already had prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation to renew federal grants for school safety, led by Rep. John Rutherford, a Republican and former sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida.

Rutherford focused on the training grants to recognize warning signs. “As I used to tell my community in northeast Florida when I was sheriff, I do not want to be the best first responder to an active shooter event; I want to prevent that occurrence before it happens,” Rutherford said on the House floor.

A few days before it was introduced, a 15-year-old student opened fire and killed two 15-year-olds at Marshall County High School near Benton, Kentucky. Only a few days later, the mass shooting in Parkland rekindled the debate, sparked a nationwide march for gun safety and made the legislation a quick way for Congress to respond to public outcry.

“In the wake of the Marshall County shooting, I heard from the families of victims and other members of the community that their top priority was enhancing physical security, whether that means installing metal detectors, hiring school resource officers, or making other evidence-based improvements to prevent and mitigate school violence,” GOP Rep. James R. Comer of Kentucky said during a floor debate on the bill.

It got wide backing, passing the House by a vote of 407-10.

Just days before the march, Congress incorporated the bill’s text into the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending legislation that authorized $75 million in school safety grants for fiscal 2018, and $100 million for fiscal years 2019 through 2028. That started a speedy application process for the first grants, which were announced six months later.

Two-thirds of the money is for training. For the first year, $50 million went through the Bureau of Justice Assistance to train school personnel and students to prevent violence, develop anonymous reporting systems for threats, create school threat assessment and intervention teams, or train school officials in responding to mental health crises.

The California Department of Education, for example, will use a $1 million grant for a three-year training initiative for districts battling high rates of violence and suspensions. The grants had to go to states with small and large populations, as well as urban, suburban and rural areas, and the local community must match 25 percent of the grant.

The other $25 million went to the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and ended up in 91 communities, where the plans are now being put into place. Those awards were announced in October.

Nearly half of the local governments who got the COPS grant included camera systems and related hardware in their plans, while four out of 10 plans proposed ways to harden schools such as access controls, doors and locks, the Justice Department said.

For the next nine years, the Bureau of Justice will award $67 million, and the Community Oriented Policing Services will award $33 million.

High pressure

When it comes to mass shootings, surveillance cameras are postmortem, and the more difficult part of the conversation is about mental health.

“The hardening of your buildings is only a slice of the solution,” Erardi said. “If you’re addressing the mental health piece, you don’t have anything close to a safety plan.”

Chad Marlow, a senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, wrote in March that Congress — through the Dickey amendment in a 1996 spending bill and the Tiahrt amendment to a 2003 appropriations bill — has prevented health officials such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying school shootings.

“Until they are repealed, and researchers at the CDC and elsewhere are empowered to study the potential link between gun control and reducing gun violence in schools, elected officials and school administrators should resist the urge to implement student surveillance measures whose impact on school violence is spurious at best,” Marlow wrote.

Warnick, the Ohio State University professor, said hardening of schools might even increase the likelihood that schools will be targeted.

“Security cameras reinforce the messaging where schools are places where violence is expected to happen,” Warnick said.

Democrats in the House have passed gun control legislation this year, but it appears all but certain to stall in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Officials in Creston, Waxhaw and Mobile did not return calls for comment.