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View from around the state: Wisconsin’s school safety program combines hardware and ‘heartware’

Minnesota needs to invest more to keep its children secure while they learn.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, in which a 19-year-old is accused of entering his former high school and killing 17 students and staff and injuring others, more states began to look seriously at school security. Many settled on “hardening the target” — security-speak for making buildings less vulnerable to violent attack.

Minnesota and Wisconsin were among those states, both acting to fund school safety grants. But that’s where the similarity ends, and the way the two programs unfolded is worth examining in an era in which school shootings have become disturbingly regular and pressure to prevent such massacres is growing.

Wisconsin set aside $100 million for grants to help with baseline security improvements: more secure entryways, shatterproof glass, locking classroom doors, security cameras and other more-advanced measures. That was balanced with improved training for school staffs, and mental health resources.

The grants were administered through the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the state’s attorney general, and came with a tough set of requirements. All Wisconsin schools — public, private, charter and tribal — now must submit blueprints of every building to the recently created Office of School Safety and to local law enforcement. Those applying for grants had to commit to having at least 10 percent of their faculty and staff take state-approved mental health training and create school intervention teams that would use a Secret Service model to train in behavior-monitoring, threat assessment and interventions.

Safety plans must be updated annually and include written evaluations of drills, visitor protocols and dates of safety training. Schools are required to work as partners with local law enforcement in developing effective safety plans. Over the course of months, despite its strict requirements, Wisconsin gave out $56 million in grants — and had $45 million left over. The remaining funds will be used in a second round of grants focused primarily on additional mental health training.

Compare Wisconsin’s approach to Minnesota’s, where $25 million came through a bonding bill that could be spent only on “high priority” physical improvements, such as entryways and communications systems. The money was first divided 50/50 between the 11-county metro area and outstate schools. Funds were to be awarded to those with suitably high-priority projects essentially on a first-come, first-served basis. Schools that applied on the same day were ranked by being assigned random numbers.

Tom Melcher, state schools finance director, said Minnesota never got to Day Two. “It was all gone before the end of the first day,” he said. Of nearly 1,200 requests totaling more than $250 million, Melcher said the department had to turn down 9 out of 10.

Some of those funded were substantial. The Fertile-Beltrami school district received more than $430,000 to redo the entryway of its lone school, with a student population of about 200. The Faribault school district received $1 million for three schools. Duluth, by comparison, applied for 14 schools and got $70,000 for two.

A mere $25 million doesn’t go far spent that way. Of the 2,403 public schools in Minnesota, only 123 received school safety grants.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who leads the E-12 Finance Committee, said the bill was “a last-ditch effort” after other, more-balanced proposals that would have included mental health resources, training and suicide prevention were vetoed as part of a thousand-page spending bill that dominated the end of the 2018 legislative session.

“It’s not the way I wanted it,” she said of the $25 million, “but we figured a crumb for the schools on safety was better than nothing.” Nelson says she is prepared to make a more-comprehensive package that reaches more schools a priority for the coming year.

Kenneth S. Trump, a nationally recognized school safety expert (not related to the president), describes the rush to harden targets as “security theater,” noting that “it’s very easy to point to a new camera and secured vestibule and say, ‘Look, we made the school safe.’?” The reality of improved security, he said, is far more difficult.

In the 20 years since the Columbine shooting, he said, “We’ve learned some things. I’ve done forensic analysis on many active-shooter cases ever since Sandy Hook (in 2012). The common thread is a failure of policies, procedures, people and systems — not failures of security hardware.” What is needed, he said, is a balanced approach that includes hardware with what he calls “heartware” — a well-trained staff that knows how to respond to a crisis and how to spot the factors that can lead to one. Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, for instance, had a pattern of disciplinary and behavioral issues. Training, Trump said, needs to be thorough and ongoing.

As Minnesota heads into next year with a sheaf of unmet requests from all the schools denied security grants and all those that didn’t even apply, it would do well to pause and develop a more careful plan for using taxpayer money to improve school security. And Wisconsin’s model, which combines hardware and “heartware,” gives this state a starting point.

Minnesota schools and law enforcement together should determine levels of vulnerability and develop specific, effective plans. The state, with limited resources, should weigh those plans according to need and effectiveness and ditch the lottery approach.

— From the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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