Minnesota offers $25 million to help make schools safer

The following column appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during late July and early August, 2018

Minnesota Offers $25 million to help make schools safer

While disagreeing on many things this year, Minnesota legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to provide $25 million to help students be safer in school.

A poll released on July 17 shows that school safety is very much on the minds of parents: A third of public school parents responding to a respected national poll conducted in May 2018 said when their eldest child is at school, they “fear for (the) physical safety” of the youngster.

Families interested in this issue might want to contact their local school, district or charter, to see if there are plans to apply for the money. According to the Minnesota Department of Education (citing 2018 legislation), grants of up to $500,000 will be awarded “to predesign, design, construct, furnish, and equip school facilities for improvements related to violence prevention and facility security for a qualifying school building. This includes renovating and expanding existing buildings and facilities.”

Timing is an issue: Applications will be accepted beginning Aug. 29. As MDE explains, funds will be awarded for proposals that meet requirements on a “first-come, first-served basis.” At least half of the grants must go to schools outside the 11-county metro area. More information is available about these grants at https://bit.ly/2L30DJA.

The Legislature and governor agreed on the funds at least in part based on public concerns about school safety.

I remember when I was attending elementary and secondary school many years ago in Wichita, Kansas. We had periodic “safety” drills to prepare us for two threats: tornadoes and nuclear war. Those threats have been replaced by fears, at least in part, that someone will come into a school and shoot students, faculty and staff.

Phi Delta Kappa, a nonpartisan, respected national education group, recently released a national poll documenting these concerns. More than 1,000 people (including more than 500 public school parents) were asked a number of questions about how safe students are in school and what should be done to improve this.

A key question was: “Thinking again about your [oldest] child in K-12, when [he is/she is/they are] at school, do you fear for [his/her/their] physical safety?” Nationally, 34 percent answered yes, they feared for the child’s safety; 65 percent responded no.

Both parents and the general public were asked about possible strategies to improve safety. Given a choice between spending money to increase mental health services for students and putting armed police in school, large majorities favored spending more on mental health services: The margins were 76 percent to 23 percent of all adults; and 71 percent to 28 percent for K-12 parents. However, it’s not necessarily either-or. At least three-fourths of parents surveyed support:

• Having one or more armed police officer at the school when it’s in session.

• Having metal detectors at all school entrances.

• Screening all students for mental health problems.

There’s much more in the poll. It’s available here: http://pdkpoll.org/results.

Meanwhile a statewide poll of Minnesota public school students, done two years ago, found (fortunately) that well over 90 percent of about 169,000 students who responded felt safe at school. Since 1989, every three years, Minnesota has surveyed fifth-, eighth-, ninth- and 11th-graders. The latest poll (in 2016) found consistent results across all those grades: Only 6-8 percent of students, depending on grade, reported they did not feel safe in school.

However, Minnesota’s student survey was taken before this year’s widely publicized school shootings. The poll did find more concerns about bullying. I’ll write about that in a future column. The most recent poll is found here: https://bit.ly/2O02Ymq. (The Minnesota student survey is voluntary, both for schools and students. Moreover, schools that decide to survey students must give families an opportunity ahead of time to review the survey. Parents have the right to “opt out” their children from taking it.)

The national poll and $25 million from the Minnesota Legislature show that school safety is on peoples’ minds. Students learn much more when they feel safe and secure.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249.