No extra money anytime soon for school safety, but improvements, planning still possible
By Madelynn Coldiron
Concern about school safety has surged following the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut school, but Jon Akers, who heads the Kentucky Center for School Safety, says you won’t find him hitting up state lawmakers for more funds at this time.
Though state funding for school safety has seen cuts like many other state services over the past few years, the center will not be requesting that money be restored on the heels of a tragedy, he said during the Jan. 9 meeting of the center’s board of directors.
“We were in a recession. Funds were down. We’re not the only agency that was cut,” Akers told the board. The center tightened its belt, “but we’re not on life support,” he added. “We’ve been grateful for what we have.”
Once state revenues are at a healthy level again, it will be a different story. Akers said he’d like to see funding for school safety back to its 2008 annual level of $10.1 million, enabling the center and schools to ramp up their safety efforts.
The current budget for school safety in Kentucky is down to $4.1 million annually – the majority of which goes to school districts.
“I think we need to address the situations that confront us and to do that in the best possible way that we can with the funding we have,” said board Chairman Jeff Stumbo, a retired police officer who also chairs the Floyd County school board. “Right now the main thing is that we do everything we can to make our schools safe for our kids and not only our kids, but our faculty and staff.”
It’s also important to make legislators and others aware of the work of the schools safety center, from its school safety assessments to its more recent assistance to school administrators and others in their local response to the Connecticut shootings, said board member Bill Riggs, representing the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. “And we can do more of that if we have additional resources,” he said.
Akers said there has been interest by at least one legislator in forming a school safety task force, while several education cooperatives also want to work with the center in bringing school safety issues to the attention of the General Assembly. He also is fielding calls from other state agencies.
“What I’m trying to do is take all these balls that are flying around in the air and see if we can’t get them funneled into all of us talking about what are some of the priorities we need to have when it comes to these issues,” Akers said. “I don’t think we need to be riding the deaths of 26 people and saying ‘Give me more money’ and we don’t have a plan.
“I want to get a plan and tell them what we’re doing and what we’ve done. And if money should flow to a level back into our agency, this is what we can do more of,” he said.
Akers said there had been a complacency about school safety because there had been no recent serious incidents of school violence.
“It’s a shame that 26 lives had to be lost to get everybody to talk about it again,” he said.
The increased interest following the Connecticut shootings also is reflected in the center’s requests for safe school assessments, in which a team evaluates individual schools on culture and climate, policies and procedures, and physical aspects related to safety. Because the agency has been catching up with past requests, it did not advertise the service this year. Despite that, it received nine requests for assessments since Dec. 14, said Barbara Gateskill, the center’s associate director.
The call for more armed law enforcement officers in schools also may create a demand for more school-specific training, both by the Center and by the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, said Lee Ann Morrison, school safety research fellow at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies who works with the center.
Until state finances improve, there are some no-cost actions school districts can take, Akers said.
“There are a lot of policy things that don’t cost a dime that we need to review and get greater compliance with these,” he said, singling out regular drills and tabletop exercises.
More professional development can be used to improve the culture and climate in schools, he said, and he also expects schools to revise their emergency response plans and review them with school staff.
“I want to be sure all schools in districts have a plan that is custom fit for their school … and that they’re revised every year by school officials and emergency responders,” he said.