In December 1997, three students were shot dead and five were wounded by a 14-year-old student as they took part in a prayer circle in the first-floor lobby of their Kentucky high school, just minutes before classes started.
It put West Paducah's Heath High School on the map of school shootings.
That was nearly eight years ago. Today, Heath High Principal Russ Tilford, who was a social studies teacher there at the time and recalls the mayhem and torment that ensued, is confident his school is safe. Unfortunately, the base of such safety comes from the almighty dollar, something that is becoming elusive and fleeting for most districts.
After the shootings, the high school brought in what became among the most valuable resource in schools nationwide--a School Resource Officer, using a U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS in Schools grant. The program, started in 1999 after an influx of school-based crime and violence, has SROs receive training and work with administrators on safety issues. Funding has decreased almost steadily from $167.5 million in 1999 to $4.9 million in 2005. President Bush's proposed 2005-2006 budget has no funding for COPS in Schools.
But the district recognized the importance of having an officer at the high school and is now paying for it out of the general fund. In fact, the district went from having eight SROs a few years ago to now only having four. "We did not drop our resource officers" entirely, says Superintendent Tim Heller of McCracken County Schools in Paducah, Ky. "We wanted to maintain them and be frugal spenders."
The SRO develops trusting relationships with students so they feel comfortable revealing past or present threats made by other students or revealing their own depression or sadness about being bullied or having family problems, for example. In either case, the SRO can check out the information or refer the student for help before it could potentially turn violent or even deadly.
"He's a positive role model and his main goal is to have relationships with the students," Tilford says. "Every student knows him by name. Officer Ford developed great rapport with many students."
District Funds Run Dry
Increasing demands on schools to have students improve and perform at higher academic levels, such as through before and after school programs, is wringing districts dry of extra money. And one of the first things to go is security in budget crunch times.
"The problem we face is that school safety professionals are competing for both time and money and they're losing on both accounts," says Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm for school security and emergency/crisis preparedness training and assessment. "Money is certainly one issue and the enormous pressure on school administrators to meet mandated test scores has resulted in the redirection in the precious little time we had in teacher and staff training, emergency planning and related issues. This makes it twice as hard to advance school safety planning in districts today than in years past."
Trump adds that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grant program to states was worth $437 million, but next year's budget shows it could be as low as $82 million. The Department of Education claims the program has been ineffective and grant funds are spread too thinly to support quality interventions. The administration proposes to redirect some of the program's funds to Safe and Drug-Free Schools National Programs, which is better structured to support quality interventions, hold projects accountable and determine which interventions are most effective.
And only 40 grants are available in the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative grant program, which is supported by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health Services, and Justice providing schools and communities with federal funds for healthy childhood development and preventing violence and alcohol and drug abuse.
"It makes no sense cutting funding for school security when dams, bridges, tunnels, national monuments and Capitol Hill" are beefing up security, Trump says. "It's the most backwards, asinine, self-destructive action I've ever seen. Just when you think you've hit rock bottom, you dig a deeper hole. It's ridiculous."
Trump goes on to say that most schools don't need millions of dollars for security programs, such as facial recognition systems or metal detectors, but they can't even afford six two-way radios for security guards. And the security director can't really ask to take $10,000 from another line item, Trump adds. "They can't rob Peter to pay Paul. Peter has already been robbed and he's broke," he says.
There is also the tendency towards complacency and denial.
"We are a roller coaster society in terms of public policy and funding," he adds. "We react on safety issues when there is a high-profile case in the news. It's not in the days and weeks before a crisis, or six months down the road. And that's the test of leadership. School safety planning is an ongoing process--not a one-time event."
The fewer grants and less money available only make it more competitive among districts. "Local budgets are decimated," Trump goes on. "There's no where to go. That's the reality. It's getting tighter and tighter and tighter and the well is getting drier and drier and drier and the people are getting thirstier and thirstier and thirstier."
SROs Live On Despite Cash Woes
A fourth annual survey, released in February, taken by National Association of School Resource Officers, a not-for-profit organization for school-based law enforcement officers, administrators and school security professionals working together, shows that 70 percent of them indicate funding for school safety is decreasing or staying the same. Only 15 percent reported an increase in safe school funding.
NASRO membership has more than doubled over the past 10 years, going from about 3,000 members to 9,000. NASRO President John Kotnour estimates about 15,000 SROs are in schools today, although schools are cutting more positions due to low funds. "I know very few situations where the program wasn't productive," says Kotnour, who is an SRO at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas. "It's usually that [administrators are] pleased with the program but it's an unbudgeted item and they can't continue it."
An SRO salary depends on the years of service and is usually funded via both the school district and the local police department, he says.
In Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Mo., the district has four school resource officers to cover five buildings for seventh graders and up. The program and salaries are paid for through an operating levy that voters approved. It was part of a five-year plan to install security cameras and additional unarmed campus supervisors as another set of eyes and ears for administrators, according to Janet Nease, director of instruction and educational programs at Park Hill. "Our high and middle school administrators are dedicated to having students believe that school is a very good place to be and if it isn't, there is someone who will listen to them," says Nease, also chair of NASRO's School Administrators Advisory Board.
Schools just can't quantify how protective SROs become over the school children nor what parents and teachers say about the officers, Nease says. "If districts don't have the tax base to ask their community to support an operating levy, which we did five years ago, and they don't have the ability to get grants, they won't have the money for what they need," she says.
Within days after the shooting at Heath High School, Tilford recalls the outpouring support and generosity from the community. The Kiwanis Club, local churches and business owners donated money and scholarship funds in memory of the girls who died. Money for one school resource officer to be stationed at the school was also donated. "It was very generous," Tilford recalls.
The school also has an anonymous tip hotline to report possible threats, locks all entry doors except the main doors after the school day begins, and assigns teachers door duty whereby they check student book bags and pat them down for any weapons or less threatening contraband, such as cigarettes. "We've tried to make it a Wal-mart greeter situation rather than, 'I'm searching your book bag.' We try to make it a positive experience," Tilford adds.
But in general, schools can't count on business or community grants because they are inconsistent and often change year to year, Nease says. Park Hill is working towards another operating levy so they can have more cameras on campus. Each of the two high schools has more than 60 cameras but the district wants to add more to other buildings over the next few years, including the sports stadium and middle schools, Nease says.
Big Business in Grant Writing
Competition is fierce now, experts say. Funding sources are requiring more documented evidence of a thorough assessment of violence, drug and related concerns in schools and communities to get grants, according to schoolsecurity.org.
And those districts that receive the available grants aren't necessarily the ones with the greatest needs, experts say. Many times, those that get the grants are those that can write and present a solid application. Many times, the grant writer is a professional writer whom the district hires on a contractual basis or is a retired administrator who knows how to create a well-organized, well-written package that answers all questions concisely and clearly. Specific rules and procedures must be followed.
And even though districts are tight on money, now they can consider grant-writing workshops in order to nail the perfect grant.
Judy Davidson, board certified trauma specialist and CEO of Renew Center for Personal Recovery says workshops can help administrators who want to begin grant writing or improve their skills. Many states have access to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program funds but getting grants depends in part on identifying their schools' specific needs through data, such as the number of incidents and threats, and physical safety audits. The Safe Schools/Healthy Students grants can be limited so that schools can't use the money for major renovations, but can be used to encourage more staff training and emergency response drills, she says.
"The greatest downfalls, as I read critiques [of grant writing], is that they usually have not targeted their needs and they have not matched what they will do with that need and they failed to use the strategies that are shown to be effective," Davidson says.
Grant funding can also be used to pay for security assessments. Some districts have used Safe and Drug-Free Schools program funds to pay for security assessments and related training. Others work with criminal justice agencies, community-based organizations, or business partners to identify funding resources.
With a Will There's a Way
The Allen County School Safety Commission in Indiana, which includes various school districts and agencies, was able to pool resources to install a computerized system that allows emergency responders to access anything and everything about a school: Number of students, photographs of school building exits, facility operations, such as gas and electrical shut-offs, and floor plans.
The commission, comprised of the county's four public districts, including Fort Wayne Community Schools, private schools, area colleges, local law enforcement and emergency services and IBM security, pooled resources worth $10,000 to institute the Pierce Responder System. The Littleton, Colo., Fire Department adopted the same system as its primary database for school pre-incident planning.
The system allows emergency responders to enter incident action plans, communication plans, and situation reports that are immediately available to all responding public safety and school personnel. Managers can communicate with hundreds of concerned parents. And it uses low-cost Internet technology, wireless modems and laptops so all emergency responders see identical, current information and instructions without relying on radios or personal communications.
The ACSSC started with $2,000 from a state program that was created following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. John Weicker, director of security for Fort Wayne, says that despite those that say money is necessary for any and all security measures, districts can make do with little money. "Every community has experts" that schools can use for security purposes, he says. "The communication between local law enforcement and emergency responders is critical. A lot of law enforcement agencies want to help with SRO programs."
The district also received a $330,000 U.S. Education Department's Emergency Response and Crisis Management grant to cover security and emergency preparedness training, athletic event security training and other activities.
One representative from each school building attends day long training sessions and then takes that information back to staff members. They essentially learn crisis preparedness plans with Trump as the lead consultant working with them.
The positive outcomes for emergency responders include: Increased reporting of crimes in schools; the ability to move directly to locations where needed given the numbered exits on all buildings; and the ability to preplan their response to an incident and get immediate access to after-hours phone numbers of school officials.
The Black Box
Three years ago, Craven County Schools in New Bern, N.C., had the North Carolina Attorney General's Office and the Department of Juvenile Justice along with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction encourage administrators to implement a Critical Incident Resource Kit. The kit includes a black box that has a list of students, school maps, and evacuation plans, among other materials. Prior to that, every school statewide was required to have a safety plan including codes and solutions to certain crisis or panic situations.
"It wasn't a plan that was really endorsed and practiced by the entire staff. It was one of those things that we had to do and then we put it on the shelf," says Janet Furman, who is the facilitator of CIRK and Craven County Crisis Resource Team. "But we really jumped into this [CIRK system] with all of our energy."
A so-called safety champion in each school instituted these kits at each of the 22 schools and school district business areas. They also brought together personnel from community health agencies, emergency services, and hospitals as dependable contacts in case of a crisis.
Meanwhile, Honeywell International, a technology and manufacturing company, contacted Furman regarding interest in the company's Instant Alert Communication Service, which enables 150 other private and public schools nationwide to deliver emergency and routine messages to parents in English or Spanish within minutes via telephone, cell phone, pager, e-mail or PDA. While Craven County had a strong emergency and crisis management plan, the district lacked funds to implement key components and pursue supporting grants.
So Honeywell worked with the district in applying for funding through the Emergency Response and Crisis Management program.
Honeywell helped write the grant, which required 10 community sponsors, such as law enforcement and health agencies with which the district already had a good relationship. Craven County schools received a $237,000 grant and targeted the two most vulnerable high schools, a middle school and an elementary school, says Furman, also public relations director for K-8 guidance at Craven County Schools. One high school was home to some fights and discipline problems while the other had excessive homemade bomb threats and a case of an intruder. The middle school had a gun sighting and the elementary school sits near a main highway by a military base, which is high on the threat list, Furman says.
The grant funded various safety needs. Among the needs covered were staff and teacher training with local emergency responders; handheld radios to connect staff between schools; enhancing its emergency response kits; and implementing a new emergency communications system in all four schools. The system can make up to 18,000 notifications in 15 minutes, which will alert police and other emergency responders of serious situations. In a code 300 situation, which means school lockdown if there is an intruder with a gun, for example, an administrator calls 911 and then central staff.
Every teacher or classroom has a safety kit in case of a lockdown that lasts for hours. The kit includes honey for diabetic students, water, a flashlight and a roster of students with special needs, for example, Furman says. The grant monies also funded megaphones, which are needed during bomb threats, for example, when all electronic devices such as intercoms cannot be used because they could spark a bomb. Megaphones allow administrators to communicate with staff to evacuate the building, Furman says.
The district also uses a Highway Advisory Radio system, or HAR, based in the county emergency management office, to monitor traffic around the schools via a radio station. It keeps roads near schools clear of cars of parents who might rush to the schools in an emergency. Clear roads means emergency vehicles can get to school doors quicker, Furman says.
The remaining 18 schools in the district wanted the Instant Alert Communication Service so the district is paying for it with funds in the reserve account. "They have a reserve fund for emergencies and they also looked at capital improvements where money was left over," Furman says.
As for future funding sources, Furman says they will keep looking. "We hope schools take ownership for smaller items and PTOs and parents will see we need this and some will be like district sponsors," Furman says.
"Safety is so important. That is the single greatest reason people leave public schools ... because they don't feel safe. We're all about learning and if you're not in a safe environment, you're not reaching your maximum potential for learning."
All in the Planning
At the Park Hill district in Kansas City, the Prepared Response technology program was possible with another grant. The program brings timely, critical information about a district, including chemical storage areas, into one electronic format, Nease says. Prepared Response's Rapid Responder gives emergency responders access, via a Web site, to pre-determined floor plans, staging areas, hazardous materials, utility shut-off locations, and photographs of any structure. For example, fire officials will know before entering a building where the science labs are and what chemicals are in each cabinet.
Park Hill was among the few districts that recently received a $185,000 grant to be dispersed over two years from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program to develop and take their crisis management plan to a higher level. "The key to getting the grant was cooperation by all 17 public safety agencies who have jurisdiction in the Park Hill School District," Nease says. "The Missouri State Emergency Management System and the Platte County emergency management system had to cooperate to qualify for the grant."
The program will be updated constantly to reveal changes. "Any time there is a change in materials, supplies, personnel ... every responder has real time information and knows the information inside and out," she says.
In the old program, the same information was on a CD format, but someone in the district had to bring people together to discuss it and then put the new information in the program. Now the district designates a program manager who gathers information from sources and puts it on the site, saving on personnel time and money.
Beyond the increased security measures, Heath High School also has 14 digital recorders stationed throughout the building, including in stairwells, hallways and building exits, Tilford says, and it was paid for with a different kind of cash.
The state gave the district reward money a couple of years ago when every grade tested in the district improved scores in core subjects over a year's time. Tilford remembers it was worth roughly $15,000, which the district could have spent on "anything," he says. In many schools, reward money goes toward teacher bonuses or updated labs.
Book royalty money, which came from a book that a group of Harvard University researchers compiled after the school shootings, also came in handy. That was another $4,000- $5,000 for the cameras.
"We looked at what was best for our school," Tilford says. "We don't want to compromise supplies but if students are not comfortable and don't feel safe, the best science labs and computer labs and materials are not going to educate students if they are afraid. And school safety is a priority for us."
The cameras have come in handy in certain cases, for example, identifying bullies and student assaults.
Tilford plans to take additional courses to become a Safe School Educator, available through the Kentucky Department of Education, to make him better prepared for crisis management at school. "Anything I can do to better myself and make myself more educated I'll do that," he says. He will pay for it himself, but he adds, "If things weren't so tight, the district might pay for it." But that's OK, he says, for he will receive college credit and add it to his professional teaching certificate.
"Our staff feels safe," Tilford says. "We've done a lot to create a welcoming environment and a positive environment. And students feel safe here."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.