Our hearts go out to the children, educators and families who have been traumatized by violence and threats of violence in their schools this month, and we applaud the school communities that put student safety first in all they do. We see the love that has been wrapped around these communities and take hope in it. But we also acknowledge that the impacts will be long-lasting, and even a threat that was proven non-credible can be deeply traumatizing for students, who may be searching for a trusted adult to talk to.
Less than two years ago, 50 of the 132 state lawmakers in Wisconsin signed onto a bill that would have repealed the state's Gun Free School Zones law. Another bill that session would have armed teachers. Neither passed into law, and both drew massive opposition.
In 2018, lawmakers also rejected a proposal to require universal background checks, which polling shows 80% of Wisconsinites and nearly 70% of gun owners support. That same year, the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police issued a powerful statement outlining the steps needed to ensure school safety; their recommendations have been largely ignored by lawmakers.
In 2011, the Legislature repealed a provision that allowed schools a revenue limit exemption for school safety expenditures, and in 2013 and 2017, rejected proposals to restore it. Instead, after the Parkland shootings in Florida, they created an Office of School Safety, housed by the Department of Justice, which administers grants. After their first round of competitive grants, they had over $43 million left but refused to allow the Department of Public Instruction to use that money to cover insufficient funds for school mental health grants.
Wisconsin's legislative majority also rejected a 2019-21 budget proposal that would have allowed DPI to award the mental health grants that were rejected due to insufficient funds in their first round of grants. The Joint Finance Committee cut a whopping $50.9 million from the proposal, then bragged about "doubling" the grants from $6 million to $12.5 million. These are grants that can ensure students have counselors to talk to, and that schools have the staff, training and protocols they need to make real connections with students. Creating safe and welcoming spaces for children to learn is critical to academic success and mental health, and these are jeopardized when students feel afraid at school.
Meanwhile, as of 2019, there are 1,528 students for every one social worker in our schools. Funding for students with special needs falls over $1 billion a year short of actual costs, and schools around the state struggle to meet staffing needs as educators flee the profession. After cutting nearly $1 billion from the proposed education budget this year, these realities are unlikely to improve unless we demand better.
This fall, as students went back to school with a status quo budget, our legislative leaders refused to take up any bills during a special session on gun safety, gaveling out of the special session after just 33 seconds.
Last week, there were more than 10 separate incidents of gun-related violence or threats of violence in Wisconsin public schools. Our children and educators are being told and trained to expect this, but not funded sufficiently to prevent it or deal with its impacts.
We are not OK with any of this.
If you aren’t either, please speak up. Talk to your any and all of your elected officials. Talk to your neighbors, your friends and your relatives. We must turn this around, and it will take many people speaking up and demanding change to get it done.
Wisconsin can and must do school safety smarter to make sure every student has the resources, support and one-on-one attention they need to thrive.
We invite you to take action today, and to join us at Wisconsin Public Education Network to be part of the growing movement to demand the schools our kids deserve.
Heather DuBois Bourenane is executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. Jenni Hofschulte is vice president of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools. Julie Underwood is president of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.
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