Beneath the expressions of grief, sorrow and disbelief over the Connecticut school massacre lies an uneasy truth in Washington: over the last few years the Obama administration and Congress quietly let federal funding for several key school security programs lapse in the name of budget savings.
Government officials told the Washington Guardian on Friday night that two Justice Department programs that had provided more than $200 million to schools for training, security equipment and police resources over the last decade weren’t renewed in 2011 and 2012, and that a separate program that provided $800 million to put police officers inside the schools was ended a few years earlier.
Meanwhile, the administration eliminated funding in 2011-12 for a separate Education Department program that gave money to schools to prepare for mass tragedies, the officials said.
A nationally recognized school security expert said those funds had been critical for years in helping schools continue to enhance protections against growing threats of violence. But they simply dried up with little notice as the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shooting tragedies faded from memory and many Americans and political leaders had their attentions diverted to elections, a weak economy and overseas dramas.
“I was baffled to see funds and programs cut in these areas,” said Kenneth Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services firm that helps school districts and policymakers improve protections for teachers and students. “Our political and policy leaders need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk about being concerned about school safety.
“We have roller coaster public awareness, public policy, and public funding when it comes to school safety. The question isn’t whether school safety is a priority today and tomorrow,” Trump added. “The question is whether it will be a priority years down the road when there isn’t a crisis in the headlines.”
Leaders in both parties in Washington on Friday expressed remorse and disbelief in the tragedy in the tiny suburban Connecticut town of Newtown, where a single 20-year-old gunman walked into the school where his mother taught and killed 20 children and six others before turning the gun on himself.
“Our hearts are broken today,” President Barack Obama said, wiping a tear from his eyes as he reacted to the tragedy. “As a country we have been through this too many times.
“These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” the president added.
But last year, his administration took a less muted tone as it submitted its 2012 Education Department budget to Congress that eliminated the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) funding, which for years provided between $20 million and $30 million in annual grants to help schools create emergency and crisis preparation and prevention plans for tragedies just like the one that unfolded Friday.
The Education Department’s Web site says it last made REMS grants in 2011.
The funding was cut off even though the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warned in 2007 that many “many school district officials said that they experience challenges in planning for emergencies due to a lack of equipment, training for staff, and expertise and some school districts face difficulties in communicating and coordinating with first responders and parents.”
Likewise, the Justice Department over the last 12 years distributed nearly $1 billion in funding to help schools hire police resource officers, install metal detectors and take other countermeasures to prevent tragedies like the Columbine massacre.
The town of Newtown, Conn., in fact, took advantage of one of these programs in 2000 when it got $125,000 in funds from the COPS in Schools program, Justice Department records show.
But Justice Department officials said the key programs that provided money directly to schools in the aftermath of Columbine have been phased out as of 2012, the last after the 2011 budget year.
For instance, the Secure Our Schools program provided more than $110 million in funding to law enforcement agencies to partner with schools for the purchase of crime prevention equipment, staff and student training between 2002 and 2011, officials said. It was ended this year.
Likewise, the School Safety Initiative provided more than $53 million between 1998 and 2010 in grants to help state and local agencies with delinquency prevention, community planning and development, and school safety resources – all aimed at preventing violence. The program ended in 2011.
Justice Department spokesman Corey Ray said Friday night that the SSI and SOS programs had been funded primarily by congressional earmarks for the last decade and the administration did not seek additional funding to continue the efforts after lawmakers essentially banned most earmarks in 2010.
“They were funded through congressionally designated funding (earmarks). They ended in 2010 or 2011 when that process of funding ceased,” he said.
The biggest funding program for school violence was the COPS in Schools program, which Ray said provided $811 millions to communities to hire resource officers who worked inside the schools. The targeted funding for schools was ended in 2005 but police are still allowed to apply for broader police hiring money from the general COPS program and then use it to hire school resource officers if they want, Ray said.
“As the economy changed, we had agencies asking for all types of positions including school resource officers,” Ray explained. “So we gave our main hiring program the flexibility to include SROs and other positions. So no COPS In Schools, but still some options to hire for those positions.”
Some liberal groups have increasingly voiced concerns about the increased spending on police and security at schools. For instance, the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank, wrote a report in 2011 entitled “Education Under Arrest” that concluded that “schools do not need school resource officers to be safe.”
White House officials did not return repeated calls and emails Friday night seeking comment on the administration’s rationale for letting the programs lapse.
With funding for K-12 schools and law enforcement agencies evaporating, police and schools have partnered in an effort to ensure safety by creating makeshift programs that target at-risk schools.
San Diego may provide the most sunshine each year, but it’s also home to multiple K-12 school shootings. San Diego Police Department Lt. Andra Brown said funding for many effective programs succumbed to downsizing and cutbacks. Programs like SOS and DARE are “nice to have,” but aren’t necessarily a “need to have.”
The Department has opted to focus on Psychiatric Emergency Response Team or PERT. “The program pairs a health care psychiatrist with a police officer in the field to proactively stop situations from exploding.”
While San Diego Police may be working proactively to prevent psychologically unstable adults from major crime sprees, the Sheriff Department takes a different approach.
“We are not of the mindset this could not happen here; because it has,” said San Diego Sheriff Public Affairs Director Jan Caldwell. “We work with the school superintendents, principals, staff, and school facility staff members to ensure we have access to the buildings, floor plans and keys to enter when we have to do so.”
Caldwell is also part of San Diego County Crime Stoppers and chair of the Students Speaking Out Committee. “This sub-program is tailored to campuses and provides students an avenue to report suspicious activity at their school. This sub program has had a total of 331 cases solved since inception. We’ve removed weapons from campuses, drugs, confronted bullying behavior, solved robberies, burglaries, vandalism, and drug cases.”
However, this program depends on the generous donations from large corporations like Target, Sempra Energy, Walmart and the San Diego Chargers.