Wisconsin school safety; federal funding could help

The mass shooting in Texas raises many questions, among them: How do we keep schools safe?

One option might be the federal relief money flooding Wisconsin schools – roughly $2.4 billion. The Wisconsin Policy Forum estimates most of it, nearly $2 billion, is left to be claimed. School districts have until 2024 to spend the last batch of money. 

The U.S. Department of Education said federal COVID-19 relief money can be used to prevent and respond to crime, as well as promote public safety. How? A document from the department states school districts can spend the money on job training, summer camps and youth violence prevention programs. Districts can also spend the money on mental health help.

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"We are hearing quite a bit of concern about the effect of the pandemic on student mental health, and that is an area, I think, of some urgency to address," said Dan Rossmiller with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. "These incidents don’t happen in a vacuum, and if we can find resources and personnel to address student mental health issues, I think hopefully we can avert some potential situations."

Federal funds can be used to hire more counselors and social workers, the U.S. Department of Education reported. 

"I think money is available. I think probably the biggest obstacle is we have a shortage of youth mental health personnel," Rossmiller said.

After the 2018 Parkland school shooting in Florida, Wisconsin lawmakers passed a bill to pump $100 million into school security. Much of that money went to building security, like secure doors, surveillance cameras, buzzer systems for the main entrances, and bulletproof film for front door windows.

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The bill set up the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Office of School Safety (OSS), which since has trained 11,000 school staff and police on judging threats, as well as adolescent mental health. The law requires schools to have a safety plan and consult with police every year.

"We have school resource officers in the school. We talk about neighborhood engagement," said Waukesha Police Chief Daniel Thompson. "That’s being engaged. That’s also looking for potential safety threat issues and getting in front of those issues."

Wisconsin also has a confidential tip line called "SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT"  – 1-800-MY-SUSO-1 (1-800-697-8761). Since it was started in September 2020, the OSS said it has received more than 3,600 tips. The calls and messages dealt with issues like bullying, child abuse and sexual assault, while 51 tips were of planned school attacks. The state's justice department says that it afforded the department "the opportunity to partner with local school officials and law enforcement to intervene and prevent violence."

Another avenue for funding school security is referendums.

In Wauwatosa, voters in 2018 approved a referendum that included $31 million for safety and security. School board documents list how Wauwatosa East High School stopped a threatened school shooting in 2018, while in 1993, Wauwatosa West High School's assistant principal was shot and killed.

Statewide, there are new debates on tightening gun laws or having more police and guards in schools.