Baker seeks money for school security

File photo/Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed $30 million in new funding to help school districts upgrade security as part of his proposed $43 billion budget.

BOSTON — School districts seeking to harden their buildings and train educators in response to a spate of deadly mass shootings could be getting some financial help from state.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed $30 million in new funding to help school districts upgrade security as part of his proposed $43 billion budget.

The largest chunk of the money, $20 million, would help districts and state colleges pay for things such as upgrades to communication and alarm systems, camera surveillance and the addition of single point-of-entry systems in buildings to prevent unauthorized visitors, as well as the creation of anonymous tip lines. That will add to $7.5 million already earmarked for the grant program.

"We've been hearing from a lot of parents about school security, especially since Parkland," said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, who supports Baker's proposal, referring to the February 2018 school shooting in Florida that killed 17 students and teachers. "They want to know that we're doing something about it."

Baker proposed a similar plan last year, which would have steered $72 million from the state's budget surplus to school safety upgrades and expand mental health programs. But the funding was whittled down to $15 million, to be equally distributed between school upgrades and mental health programs.

Baker's latest plan also earmarks $5 million for training educators, resource officers and other school officials, and $2 million for a statewide "say something" campaign to raise public awareness about threats, among other initiatives.

More than locks and talk

Education Secretary James Peyser said the governor's plan recognizes that protecting students "requires complements to traditional security infrastructure."

"We know that keeping our students safe is dependent on much more than better locks and communications systems," he said. "It is also vital we train school personnel and public safety officials how to react to emergencies."

Enhanced security features have become common for schools as they struggle to handle the threat of attacks on their buildings, teachers and students.

Many districts have incorporated security designs into new buildings — such as panic buzzers, electronic door locks, high-tech cameras and specialized glass meant to slow down a shooter. Other schools have created secure vestibules, where visitors are screened, at the main entrance.

Most school districts have been paying for the upgrades on their own, state officials say, stretching already thin budgets.

In Beverly, for example, the city is planning to spend $3.75 million to increase school security by tapping into a mix of surplus funds, municipal loans and tax revenues. City officials have declined to provide details of Mayor Mike Cahill's request, other than to say it will be used for "funding to enhance security and communication systems."

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides grants for safety training and planning for schools, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority offers millions of dollars in grants every year for school construction and renovations.

A school safety task force created in 2014 by former Gov. Deval Patrick laid out 29 recommendations to strengthen security, including more state funding to help schools pay for security upgrades and for districts to hire resource officers for middle and high schools.

But school administrators say few of those recommendations have been implemented.

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said he supports Baker's proposal but wonders how far $30 million will go when it is spread among more than 400 school districts.

"If turns out that we need to make a bigger investment to make sure all of the commonwealth's schools meet basic security needs, that's something we need to consider," he said. "We need to make sure our schools are safe."

Social workers needed, too

With a rash of high-profile shootings over the past two years, schools across the country are wrestling with upgrades to security procedures and systems.

Lawmakers in at least 26 states poured nearly $1 billion into school safety last year in the wake of Parkland and other mass shootings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 200 legislative proposals addressing school safety have been introduced in 39 different states, the group said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a $400 million school security bill in April that includes money for mental health professionals and a "guardian" program enabling staff with law enforcement training and school district approval to carry concealed handguns on campus. The measure also increased the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21.

In New Jersey, voters approved a $500 million bond in November to upgrade security at the state's public schools.

New Hampshire has doled out $30 million in grants in the past year to school districts to secure buildings, install cameras, bulletproof windows and improve communication systems.

Still, security experts point out that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida had a number of security measures in place, including an armed sheriff's deputy, lockdown procedures and cameras. Those measures failed to stop 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz from entering one of the buildings with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 and wounding dozens of others.

President Donald Trump has suggested that teachers be allowed to carry firearms to protect students and themselves — an idea many teachers oppose.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said superintendents want secure schools, but they also stress the need to hire more social workers and guidance counselors to identify mental health issues and potential violence among students.

"If there's one place that superintendents would devote additional security money to, it would be to improving social and emotional systems," he said. "That is the No.1 concern."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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