Money to ‘harden’ schools draws backlash after shootings
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — An alliance of U.S. education groups expressed shock Tuesday that the Trump administration would let schools purchase metal detectors and police patrols through a $1.1 billion program that the White House and Congress have used to defend their response to an epidemic of school shootings.
The concern comes nearly a month after a gunman killed 10 people at a high school near Houston, which prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to urge schools to use federal education dollars to “harden” campuses through more armed guards or altering buildings.
On Tuesday, dozens of gun-control activists packed the end of a two-day hearing at the Texas Capitol on school shootings. The hearings opened this week with school police chiefs endorsing some physical safeguards but waving off metal detectors as ineffective.
But the prospect of the U.S. Department of Education letting schools purchase metal detectors or extra police is troubling an education coalition that pushed Congress to nearly triple the size of the program this spring. The coalition includes the National PTA, National School Boards Association, the American Counseling Association and the Girl Scouts.
Using the $1.1 billion block grant to “harden” schools was never the purpose and will come at the expense of other needs, said Ally Bernstein, executive director of the Title IV-A Coalition, whose name refers to the federal law signed in 2015 that authorized the program.
“I am shocked that they would point to this,” Bernstein said. “Right now, I can assuredly say that I don’t think this was the intent of Congress for this program.”
Both the Santa Fe High School shooting and the February massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed, have put a spotlight on a wide-ranging Education Department program known as Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants. Schools can use some of the funds to promote what the department calls “safe and healthy” students, such as mental health, but the money is also for bolstering academic programs or technology.
President Donald Trump had earlier called for defunding the program in his proposed budget. But the program has since taken on new life among Republicans and Democrats as a source of school safety dollars in the wake of the Texas and Florida shootings.
Less than two weeks after the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, Abbott made the program the financial centerpiece of his $120 million plan to protect Texas schools, saying funding could target “either physical safety improvements — like metal detectors — or additional law enforcement patrols.”
The Republican’s 40-page plan was released after a series of meetings with school officials and survivors of the Santa Fe shooting. It also proposes using grant dollars on mental health and, unsurprisingly, calls for no new major restrictions on guns.
“A safe learning environment for all students is crucial to advancing the purposes” of the federal program, Abbott wrote.
Elizabeth Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said metal detectors and extra police would be generally allowable costs under the program.
Bernstein disagreed, saying her group would likely now seek clarification from the Trump administration and Congress.
Less than 20 percent of school districts in Texas have their own police forces, but state officials said Tuesday that since the Santa Fe shooting, more than a dozen districts have raised the idea of starting new ones.
“If I can’t guarantee that what’s on the other side of the metal detector is secure, what’s the point of spending the money on the metal detectors?” Mike Matranga, executive director for security and school safety at Texas City schools near Houston, said Monday.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber