Guidelines, guts, and gear: How schools decide what to buy with new safety money

When teachers return to school in Columbiana, Ohio at the end of the month, they’ll be trained to use the latest in district-funded security technology. No, not camera systems. This 1,000-student district already has those. Ditto state-of-the-art buzzer system. Nope, they’ll learn how to use tactical grade pepper spray cannons.

Four Threat Extinguisher canisters, which fire the pepper spray up to 20 feet, have been installed in all three school district buildings. Should someone remove a canister from its base, the system will fire a 107-decibel alarm and electronically alert the police and fire departments. All in, the system will cost about $25,000.

“We’re in a pretty safe area. It’s almost a walk back in time,” superintendent Donald Mook said of his rural district. “But the way lunatics are now picking on soft targets; I’ve been in constant communication with our police chief.”

More money, more guidelines

Local officials and state legislators pushed into action by panicked parents—more worried about school shootings now than after Sandy Hook—are earmarking millions of dollars to bolster building security. In New Hampshire, schools will get $30 million for safety. In Minnesota, there is a $25 million school safety grant program. Pennsylvania has set aside a staggering $60 million.

At a glance, the funding seems more than enough to cover Security Magazine’s wish list: access control, video surveillance, gunshot detection, mass notification systems and smart building technologies. But these staggering numbers become far less impressive at the district and school level, where administrators must decide how to carve up their portion.

Charlotte school districts will get $4.6 million of the North Carolina budget for 170 schools or about $27,000 per school. In Pennsylvania, school districts are not permitted to receive more than 10 percent of the available budget. That means that even the largest communities, like the Philadelphia school system, can get no more than $600,000. In Vermont, a relatively small $4 million budget will allow schools to get up to $25,000 each.

To make those tough decisions, they’re leaning on a combination of budgetary guidelines and local resources. To start, some states have sliced their budgets to favor one-time purchases. New Hampshire has slated 80 percent of its spending for building improvements like reinforced doors and windows and early detection systems. Minnesota’s budget also favors building security.

Vermont, where police thwarted a would-be gunman the day after the Parkland shooting, ordered an assessment of more than 400 schools completed by April. Based on the results, it issued 20 best practices to schools applying for state money, said Rob Evans, school safety liaison officer for Vermont’s agency of education and department of safety. Plans for the purchase of access control systems, locking mechanisms, emergency notification systems and other security gear are weighted against a points system, he said.

Gear or guys?

The investment in gear over training for existing staff and needed personnel troubles some experts. “If you have $25,000 to spend and you’ve spent it on something no one knows how to use, you might as well have flushed it,” said Dr. Amy Klinger, director of The Educator’s School Safety Network. “The shooter at Sandy Hook breached the buzzer system in 30 seconds. If you don’t train people in what to do when that buzzer system does get breached you’re not any safer than you were.”

Required training and ongoing resources are very much on the mind of administrators making those choices. “The money coming in now wasn’t available for some years outside of an occasional grant or earmark,” said Robert Pezzella, school safety director for the public schools in Worcester, Mass.

That money may not come around again for a while, so districts cautious about spending on reoccurring costs like new personnel have a reason to favor one-time purchases. “Whatever we give you a grant for, you have to sustain it,” said Pezzella, who has 21 years on the job. He is the first to vet any vendor pitches, then takes his recommendations to the superintendent of schools.

This year, Worcester has purchased 1,400 ALICE-approved GoBuckets. Each homeroom teacher gets a bucket with tactical items like zip ties, door jams, wasp spray and other things that might come in handy during a lockdown. It’s also invested in In Force, a situation room style app that allows teachers to communicate directly with police officers during a crisis.

Columbiana relied on a grassroots team to assess safety—one committee for each school building and another for the district overall—comprised of police officers, administrators, and parents with relevant experience. They tossed out the idea of metal detectors because of staffing and procedural concerns. “Ok, so who’s going to man those metal detectors? And what are they going to do if someone comes through with weapons?” Mook said.

Instead, the team decided on the Threat Extinguishers, but not for their firepower. The real selling point was the communication system. Each teacher gets a panic button lanyard, which signals emergency response teams in seconds. What’s more, those buttons are registered to individual users and mapped to their classrooms, so responders know which room to approach on arrival. “The bear spray was a bonus in my opinion,” said Mook.

Both districts will include training for the new items as part of their active shooter and emergency drills, but at the end of the day, Mook said a school could only be so safe.

“You’re not going to walk up and see barbed wire or fences. There are still windows in every classroom. There’s no amount of safety that can stop a lunatic. But we’re going to do the very best we can.





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