Growing Number of Schools Arming Themselves With Defense Budgets

By Steve Miller

The Chippewa Valley school district in suburban Detroit didn’t retreat in 2017 after voters overwhelmingly defeated its proposal to borrow $90 million for spending pitched as “protecting the community’s investment in our schools.”

Instead it rebranded the package as if lives were on the line – as an effort to literally protect students. Last year, voters approved the bond proposal with the campaign tag line “safe schools, strong schools” emphasizing the need for new security funding.

School districts around the nation have found that security sells in the year since a troubled student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Hundreds of districts have moved to arm teachers or staff, a once unthinkable notion. Along with that much-publicized development is a quieter one with high price tags stretching long into the future: officials borrowing billions, with little taxpayer pushback, for added security staffing, mental health counselors and protective upgrades – no matter how tangential some of the spending may be to the stated purpose.

Much of it comes in bond measures because they are easier to pass using the appeal of safety and security.

Although many districts have reported a rise in safety issues since the Department of Education insisted in 2014 that schools adopt more lenient discipline policies to address racial disparities in suspension rates, this has not been emphasized in the bond campaigns. The Trump administration rescinded those Obama-era guidelines last month.

Across Florida after Parkland, seven of 25 bond proposals were pitched as security related and voters approved all of them. More than half of California school districts last year emphasized security as part of bond proposals, and nearly 80 percent passed.

“These districts sell bonds by using those words, like ‘safety’ or ‘security,’” said Richard Michael, who operates a website that tracks public school bond issuances in California.

“But they make things so vague, like ‘secure doors,’ ” he said. “The money can be spent in any number of ways, but the first thing that is done is to upgrade the facilities, and they can roll in security as part of that. So a district can redo the entryway of a school, then add a few cameras and maybe a buzzer access system and say, ‘See, it’s for security.’ ”

Tom Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement last month, he praised boards for working “diligently and consistently for many years to enhance security” and urged continued federal spending to fund “school resource officers, to expand mental health services and school counseling, and to enhance school building design and construction initiatives.”

In addition to taxpayer-approved bonds, several states passed emergency measures that require more security personnel at the schools. That means new hires who are likely here to stay, since no one is ready to shed security staff, with attendant legacy costs including health care and pensions that exceed the immediate cost of reassuring parents.

“When you add staff, it tends to be an ongoing commitment,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “But school districts say they would rather have more access to law enforcement than other forms of security, like technology.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s $110 million school safety plan is aimed at more security staffing at schools. “It’s the government’s conclusion that trained people on site is what brings a stronger safety focus,” Baskin said.

The Parkland shooting is just the latest incident stoking decades-long concerns about school security.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that during the 1999-2000 school year, 19 percent of the nation’s campuses were equipped with security cameras. Today the figure is around 81 percent, making it hard to find a school without them.

All of this has happened despite the fact that the odds of being a victim of a shooting in one of the nation’s 122,000 public and private K-12 schools are exceedingly rare, and becoming more so.

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, has run the numbers. “There were more school casualties in the last five years of the 1990s than between 2013 and 2017,” he said, referring to shootings. He’s found that since 1990, there have been 22 shootings at K-12 schools in which two or more people were shot, not including the shooters. Five of those have occurred since 2013, with 27 fatalities, compared with 33 killed in the last half of the 1990s.

More of the nation’s 50 million public school students were killed commuting to school, roughly 30 a year, Fox notes, citing a 10-year study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Florida, each school is now required to have a dedicated security staffer, partly funded by a state allocation. That could be called an unfunded mandate, acknowledged Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

“The money the state provided is not enough to cover the cost of a school resource officer in every school,” she said.

She said officials hoped that schools could use retired military or law enforcement officers – personnel already drawing a public pension — to meet the state’s requirement. “In every county, it is set up differently,” she said, with some places using armed teachers or local police officers rather than new hires.

Meantime, schools are pushing bond proposals for technology that includes facial and license plate recognition software, enhanced campus communication systems, cameras and intrusion detection peddled to them by security companies that have formed to exploit the school shootings of the last couple of years.

On top of the local spending, Congress last year released $70 million in security funding to schools. The money comes even when the district already has funding in place for security.

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