School Security and the Budget Crisis

03/31/2010  |  PETE POCHOWSKI

“Financially, I’ve never seen it this bad.  The state is broke. Federal programs are getting axed, and I don’t know where I’ll get the money to continue that safety program we just started. No one wants to raise taxes, and frankly, I don’t see an end in sight.”

Who said this? It could have been any school superintendent, principal, or school security director in the entire United States. Everyone agrees that times are tough.

Americans have been witness to 50 years of challenges to the safety of schools, and with each decade comes a new burden to the annual budget that had not been expected. In the 60s it was racial issues; in the 70s it was drugs; in the 80s it was gangs; in the 90s it was school shootings, and; in the 2000s, it was terrorism. No shortage of challenges for school leaders here. Bad? Yes, but the real danger is this: While every decade has seen another major problem added to the ongoing list of threats, absolutely nothing has come off the list! Nothing.

If we are to follow this clear and distinct pattern that has developed, American school leaders entering a new decade should be preparing for another major threat to school security — and of course, setting funds aside to address it. The problems are mounting but the funding is dwindling. Never have administrators had to do so much, for so many, with so little (apologies to Churchill).

You ask, what problems might be surfacing that would continue this daunting record? I spoke to my friends and colleagues from across the US and Canada and here are some things that concern them:

A. Bad parents, or none at all

B. Gangs are still growing (with moms and dads often leading the recruiting effort. See item A. above)

C. 4.7 million births in the US in 2007, the highest ever! Many of these children were born to illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens (pick your term, same problem)

D. Teen pregnancy/single parent births continue to climb

E. Changing demographics (it is hard to “hit” a moving target)

F. Technology, like cell phones and the new whatamacallit that hasn’t been invented yet, adding to the list of devices of which teachers and parents have little understanding and absolutely no control

G. UFO’s (not “V” type visitors, but Un Forseen Objects, like the ones that have been hitting us since the Eisenhower years)

Is your school budget prepared for any or all of these?

Those of us in the school security industry are often the first to feel the cuts in budgets. After all, it is difficult for us to measure what has been prevented. If it didn’t occur — it didn’t exist. We haven’t had a gang fight, so we don’t have gangs, etc. and it comes next years shopping list. I sympathize with managers who have to balance a budget, make tough choices, and layoff good employees. For almost a decade I was one of them, and I feel their pain. We have already seen cuts in travel, training, personnel, and even teachers and police officers. What is an executive to do?

Let’s start with what we know for certain. There is still SOME federal grant money for schools — $32.8 million was awarded for Safe Schools Healthy Students in July, and $761 million proposed ($211 million more than in ’09) is in the 2010 COPS Grant budget. But beyond that, it will take exceptional creativity to solve the problems we face.

What we need now is more good sound ideas, and fewer ideas that sound good. Where can we find people to come up with these ideas? If necessity is the mother of invention, let’s start with those who are stakeholders in our schools. They are among those with the most to lose. One group is the Crisis Management Teams (CMT) of the schools. Each school SHOULD have a number of people who advise the principal on all topics related to security. The teams generally include the administrator, teachers, nurses, law enforcement, fire reps, maintenance, parents, business people and even a student or two. We should expand their roles and ask for input on the budget. They could start with a list of security items/resources they would like, that they believe are necessary; discuss the pros and cons of each; then, put them in priority order. The benefits are self-evident. 

I suggest that too many administrators do not comprehend the importance of school security. Ask yourself this question: How many administrators have been fired for failing to raise education results vs. failing to create a safe environment? A parent may forgive you if their child comes home with B’s instead of A’s, or if their child comes home with C’s instead of B’s. But they won’t forgive you if their child doesn’t come home.

From a law enforcement perspective, I assure you that suppression without prevention ensures consternation. It just doesn’t work. They must work in tandem.

Security may be impacted, like all other areas of the budget, but administrators are encouraged to be wise. One administrator was overheard to say: ”I haven’t had a safety issue in a long time. I have half a mind to cut my entire security staff.” That person, I believe, is properly equipped to make that flawed decision.

Pete Pochowski is Executive Director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.

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