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One year ahead of funding deadline, Wisconsin schools continue finalizing safety, security plans

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Glenn Rehberg, of the Department of Justice's Office of School Safety, leads a School Violence Threat Assessment Team training in Waunakee at Heritage Elementary School on Aug. 8, 2019. 

As students in the Madison area prepare to head back to school this fall, they'll find their buildings could include new state-of-the-art cameras, enhanced door locking technology and updated phone systems. 

Those measures and others have been installed in schools throughout Wisconsin over the last year, as officials have sought and been awarded state funding to beef up security practices after lawmakers in 2018 created a new safety grant program.  

Some of those changes were completed, or near completion, when students entered classrooms last fall, as schools worked tirelessly to begin implementing them ahead of the August 2020 deadline. 

In Madison, with one year left for schools that received grant funding under the program to finalize their safety and security upgrades, just three private schools have finished their projects and their training requirements associated with receiving the funding. 

That money was doled out through the new Office of School Safety, within the state Department of Justice, in two separate rounds last year. In all, schools and districts across Wisconsin received nearly $100 million — funding that is reimbursed by the DOJ after projects are completed. 

St. Maria Goretti School

St. Maria Goretti Catholic School in Madison. 

Physical improvements

St. Maria Goretti Catholic School, located on Madison's southwest side, is one of the three Madison schools to have completed its grant projects and training requirements, according to a state Department of Justice tally. 

The K-8 school, which has around 460 students, including those enrolled in the three-year-old and four-year-old pre-K programs, used its $18,320 from the Office of School Safety to overhaul and update its entire camera system. 

Principal Liz Young said the upgrade came after instances of vandalism at the school, and the previous camera system was so old that officers who investigated the incidents couldn't tell what was going on. 

The project was completed at the beginning of the last school year, Young said. 

Separately, the school has also improved its door locks, an initiative that wasn't funded through state dollars. But Young said once officials became aware of the need, they recognized it had to be completed immediately as opposed to waiting for the project to be approved under the grant process.  

"This we considered a wonderful thing to have happen because it’s so much better and so much safer for our kids," she said. "But if we honestly see something that has to be taken care of, we find a way to do it. We have to. Because once you know about it, you have to do something about it, and that’s important."

The other two Madison schools that have finished their projects and training requirements are Isthmus Montessori Academy, on the city's north side, which received $20,484 from the state; and Our Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran School, on the southwest side, which got $20,000. 

Across the state, around 100 schools and districts have completed their safety improvements and training standards, per DOJ, measures that totaled nearly $3.9 million. 

In all, the office as of Aug. 6, had paid out nearly $39.2 million for completed improvements across Wisconsin, according to a DOJ spokeswoman. 

Most projects, though, remain in progress, including at Madison Metropolitan School District facilities.

MMSD was awarded around $2.4 million through the Office of School Safety under the two rounds of grants, money officials are using for new door hardware in every classroom and office in the district, shatter-resistant glass and upgraded phone, public address and emergency notification systems. 

Building and Administrative Services Executive Director Chad Wiese said the district is about 85 percent done with the new door locks, and officials are on track to have every school in the district done by the start of the school year save for two, where they had to order new classroom doors. 

The phone and emergency system upgrades, he said, is about half complete across the district, with all the high schools and administration building already done, as well as all but two middle schools. The goal is to have the new phones online by the start of school, though the extra functionalities would be more slowly rolled out throughout the year. 

The move replaces an "aging phone system" with a “whole new suite of functionalities” to improve communication between schools, including the ability to initiate a school lockdown from a phone and send instructions to classrooms via handset screen, he said.  

As for the shatter-resistant film to put over windows, the district has yet to hang a single piece because it's been difficult to find a contractor to do the work as a series of schools are seeking to complete similar projects within the same time period, Wiese said. 

The district, he added, is looking to get a one-year extension from DOJ to be able to finish that portion of the project, though he hopes it won't take that long. 

"I think the entire industry, but in particular that set of contractors that would be able to do that work, were pretty inundated when the state funded it all at the same time," he said. 

In addition to delays in getting projects completed, other challenges came up in the grant process, including for smaller schools. 

At St. Maria Goretti, assistant principal Dianne Metz pointed to the school's small staff — around 30 in all — and limited resources compared to larger districts.

For example, the school doesn't have a grant writer, so the previous assistant principal wrote the grant, Metz said. 

Training requirements

Under the state-level grants, schools have until the end of next August to make physical improvements to their schools buildings. But they're facing a quicker deadline to complete some of the new training requirements under the law. 

Those include ensuring all staff members have received training in three areas surrounding recognizing and engaging with students who've undergone trauma in their lives, a requirement tied to the awarding of dollars under the first round of school safety grants. Those sessions have to be finished by the end of this month. 

But officials from schools that received funding under the second round of school safety grants also have to undergo mental health training, while administrators and security officers can attend a training on assessing potential threats to school safety and determining responses. 

The latter sessions are tied to schools' own threat assessment teams and policies, which provide direction on how to detect and respond to any risks or concerning behavior a student may exhibit. 

In a session at Waunakee's Heritage Elementary School, more than 50 Madison-area school officials and law enforcement officers gathered to discuss their own practices in the wake of the two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio -- events that were on the minds of training attendees last week Wednesday. 

The eight-hour training, led by Office of School Safety Deputy Director Glenn Rehberg included discussions surrounding the potential risk of a threat made during a given incident, examining students’ social media activity and more. 

Rehberg, a former police officer and teacher, told reporters the training seeks to give schools the tools to divert any potential risks and provide support to students that are showing concerning behaviors -- efforts “to make schools even more safe than they already are” through the use of evidence-based practices. 

“I think recent (shootings) have just highlighted the fact that what we’re doing is important, is needed and is an appropriate step for schools to take to help guarantee the safety and security of their staff and students,” he added. 

Coon Valley Elementary School teaching principal Mike Berg, who attended the session, said a challenge facing elementary school administrators is safeguarding schools and practicing drills without frightening or traumatizing kids, especially in light of the mass shootings receiving national attention. 

He said Rehberg had reminded attendees at the start of the training that students are more likely to get hit by lightning than shot by a school shooter. That means, Berg said, if officials expose kids to active shooter drills, “you’re increasing it to 100 percent that the kids might be kind of traumatized and think that it’s going to happen.”

The teachers had received active shooter training that involved Berg’s co-principal wielding a pellet gun, he said. But in dealing with students, officials emphasize to them the importance of following their instructors’ directions in those kinds of emergency situations.  

Berg’s school is one of two elementary schools that are part of the Westby Area School District in western Wisconsin. 

The teachers had received active shooter training that involved Berg’s co-principal wielding a pellet gun, he said. But in dealing with students, officials emphasize to them the importance of following their instructors’ directions in those kinds of emergency situations. School officials also hold drills similar to active shooter situations, he said, but don’t call them that and work to minimize the fear factor for students.  

Young, from St. Maria Goretti Catholic School, said with the improvements the school has made, she's confident students are safe within the building. 

"But what happens when they leave?" she asked. 

Office of School Safety

Training materials for school and community officials from the Department of Justice's Office of School Safety program. 

Future funding streams

School officials also said they would support ongoing state funding to help schools cover updates to safety-related technology and other security measures. 

"You always have to be looking at the safety, we talked about how we replaced our locks," said Metz, from St. Maria Goretti Catholic School. "That’s always going to happen with all schools that things either need to be fixed or updated or maybe there’s new research that shows a better protocol. Whatever it is, if we’re going to have a safety office, it should allow the schools to be able to update where needed."

MMSD Safety & Security Coordinator Joe Balles agreed that some sort of "per-pupil safety credit" that could go toward safety-related initiatives as part of school operations would be helpful. 

"The world’s changing and we've got to keep our schools safe," he said. 

Asked about whether Assembly Speaker Robin Vos would be open to making available ongoing funding for school safety or security initiatives, a spokeswoman said the Rochester Republican "continues to believe in local control for school districts, which allows school officials to set their own priorities utilizing the funds that are provided to them."

The office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn't provide comment on potential ongoing grant funding. 

MMSD has been seeking out other funding options for school safety initiatives, including through the federal Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) for a School Violence Prevention Program. 

The program came out of language Congress included in a 2018 omnibus spending bill, which made available around $1 billion over 10 years through COPS and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. 

President Trump touted the initiative as part of his speech early last week following the two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left dozens dead and more than 50 wounded.

Under the COPS portion, funding can cover coordination with law enforcement, training to prevent student violence and technology to quickly notify law enforcement officials in an emergency, among other things, a federal spokeswoman wrote in an email. School resource officers couldn't be funded through the program. 

Wisconsin last October wasn't awarded any of the available $25 million in funding through the COPS-run program. The money ended up in 91 communities total across the nation. 

This past June, MMSD applied for $500,000 in grant funding under the COPS program to integrate further school security efforts into existing safety plans, according to district officials, including a new notification software to further enhance the district's phone system and standardizing camera systems and storing footage, among other things. 

Grants are expected to be awarded in September or October, and the total project cost is $674,000 -- $175,000 of which would be provided as matching through the salaries and fringe benefits of currently employed staff who will work on these efforts, per the district.

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