Education

The Feds’ New School Safety Clearinghouse Isn’t the First. Some Former Ones Didn’t Fare So Well

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 13, 2020 4 min read

The National School Safety Center was designed to provide research, information, model legislation, and training on how to keep schools safe.

This once federally funded, still-existing organization is not the new school-safety clearinghouse that the Trump Administration established this week. In fact, it got started way back in 1984 through a mandate by President Ronald Reagan and a $2 million federal grant—long before Columbine, Sandy Hook, 9/11, and Parkland became household words.

But some time later, the feds lost interest in the center. It failed to win a contract in the mid-1990s; its staff dwindled. It ended up being supported by consulting fees and grants.

This bit of federal school-safety trivia is relevant in the context of the federal government’s newest foray into school safety, because it raises this question: Will the new effort to set up a clearinghouse—currently limited to a website, schoolsafety.gov—receive dedicated funding and staff, or will it also ultimately fade away?

Inconsistent Funding

The history of the NCSS is not the only time a major national school safety initiative petered out. Consider the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grants, which the U.S. Department of Education funded between 2003 and 2010. In its heyday, it allocated as much as $31 million annually. The agency also funded a technical assistance center beginning in 2004 to help those who received the grants and create a community of practice.

Now, only the REMS technical-assistance center remains. Much like the NCSS group, its staff remains available to consult on school safety practices and offer guidance and resources. (It also helps grantees for a second school-safety grant program on emergency management, which has apparently only twice been funded.) Confusingly, the center bills itself as “Your National School Safety Center.”

Deborah Temkin, the vice president for youth development and education research at Child Trends, a research organization, noted that at least two other federally funded centers house school-safety resource collections: The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments and the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety. In fact, some of their resources are what’s populating the new schoolsafety.gov website, she said.

And as alluded to above, federal funding for school-safety activities has been inconsistent. By the time the Every Student Succeeds Act rolled around, for instance, appropriations for the major school safety program, a formula grant then in Title IV of the law, had dwindled to such an extent that lawmakers ended the program and merged school safety into a much larger (and much broader) block grant program.

Things are rebounding. The bloodshed in 2018 and 2019 prompted Congress to fund about $70 million in several existing Education Department grants on trauma and school climate, and a 2018 law also prompted another $70 million in new grants for school violence prevention and threat assessment training, this time coordinated through the Department of Justice.

Coordination or Confusion?

It’s not intrinsically a bad thing that there are multiple school-safety websites and grants out there. But it is a problem to the extent that they offer diverging or potentially contradictory information on how to make schools safer. (Already, the liberal Center on American Progress was contending, on Twitter, that some of schoolsafety.gov’s resources could end up stigmatizing particular groups of students.)

And even with multiple clearinghouses, it’s not clear whether their information is making its way into school districts’ hands, said Ken Trump, an independent consultant on school safety.

“We are out in the schools, and the principals and the superintendents by and large don’t have a clue that these different clearinghouses and centers exist,” he noted. “They are so busy and have so many competing interests, they have very little time to even research it. And they’re getting increased state mandates for a certain number of active-shooter drills, for threat assessment, for emergency response plans.”

So why is there such an uneven federal pattern of investing in school safety?

“My belief is that we’re a rollercoaster society, and we have rollercoaster public policy, and rollercoaster public funding, and rollercoaster public attention,” Trump said. “When high profile incidents occur, legislatures jump all over them.”

But ultimately, he said, funding tends to taper off.

“The federal government over multiple administrations has eliminated grants and programs for school emergency planning, school violence prevention, and school safety research and replaced it with websites, manuals, and online toolkits,” he said. “This the latest of multiple websites, and those things are just not connecting with school administrators.”

So in the end, it’s worth asking this question: Will this new center receive ongoing funding? (As I reported, legislation to establish it formally in the Homeland Security department and fund it hasn’t yet advanced in Congress.) Is the site going to be used by teachers and principals?

And, perhaps most importantly of all, will the feds stick with this one for the long haul?

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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