School safety: How will superintendents, principals, and boards keep schools safe – and save face with parents – when pandemic recovery money and state grants disappear?

Posted by on September 22, 2023

Many school leaders are funding school security measures and student support services using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Programs (ESSER) and/or American Rescue Plan (ARP) COVID pandemic recovery funds. If school leaders do not have a plan for sustainability once those dollars begin to disappear in the next year or two, school violence and school safety concerns will likely escalate.

Federal pandemic recovery dollars and state grants used to fund school security and social-emotional student supports will soon disappear. Expect safety problems to worsen.

Indicators suggest schools will not be able to absorb the costs associated with security hardware, products, and technology that many schools are purchasing with the use of pandemic recovery money and one-time state grants.

School leaders are using federal pandemic recovery funds to purchase artificial intelligence (AI) weapons detection systems and cameras, metal detectors, and other physical security equipment. These purchases often follow high-profile school shootings and other gun-related confiscations. They provide a means for school leaders to temporarily neutralize school safety political pressures that school boards and administrators face from parents, the media, and other stakeholders.

The social, emotional, and whole child student support services currently funded by pandemic recovery dollars will also be at risk as federal pandemic relief dollars run dry. Many schools rely upon pandemic relief dollars and states grants to support counselors, social workers, and other social-emotional student support staffing. Already short of personnel for internal staffing of these services, we find some schools contracting with community-based organizations to support school services for students.

In our school security and emergency preparedness assessment consultations, school leaders consistently tell us that even with pandemic relief money and other grants, levels of student anxiety, suicide ideation, and other safety concerns continue to skyrocket. So what will happen with student needs and school safety when these funds disappear?

Sustainability is a huge consideration for superintendents. But when the federal dollars dry up, will school boards pick up in their local operating budgets the massive loss of federal pandemic funds they currently use for school security and prevention?

A recent survey of superintendents by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the national superintendents’ association, found the following about their use of pandemic recovery money:

  • 44% stated considerations about funding sustainability is a top priority;
  • 42% considered sustainability when determining ARP expenditures; and
  • 84% of superintendents say they have shifted ARP federal pandemic relief funds for the next 15 months due to increased costs and inflation.

Thus, with end of federal pandemic money coming into focus, school administrators are already showing indications of concern about sustainability and beginning to shift funds due to increased costs and inflation. It is good leadership to zero in on sustainability issues and concerns.

Sustainability must be a planning priority at the moment school leaders consider accepting federal and state grant money in the first place.  Granted, COVID boxed school administrators into a corner where they had to accept outside funding due to the overwhelming challenges of students returning from online learning.

But when outside funds are used for school security (hardware, products, and technology) and student support services (counselors, social workers, social-emotional interventions, etc.), school leaders face a harsh reality:  When the federal funds run dry and one-time state grants disappear, the challenges of student anxiety, social-emotional behavioral concerns, aggressive behavior and fighting, and school crimes and violence will not disappear along with the money.

School safety cannot continue to be a grant-funded luxury

School safety, security, and prevention have long been treated in school budgets as what I called a “grant-funded luxury.”  I quit counting how many times I have heard, “If we get a grant, we really want to do a school security and emergency planning assessment,” or “If we get a grant, we want to do school safety training.”

I have long held that true leadership on school safety is reflected in your budgets. A dear friend and former public policy professor and college dean once told me, “You can say in your rhetoric ‘til you’re red in the face that school safety is a priority, but if it is not reflected in your budget, it is just rhetoric.”

That was about 20 years ago when he said this, and we still have a lot of work to do on having schools aligning what is in their rhetoric with school safety funding in their actual budgets.  School safety cannot continue to be a grant-funded luxury.

Prepare to potentially lose physical security and other school safety measures — and to potentially lose credibility with your school-community

We recently worked with a school district that incorporated social workers, nurses, social-emotional supports, and other school safety measures into their budgets more than a half-dozen years ago. They won’t lose staff or programs due to federal pandemic relief funds drying up.  This is leadership.

But school leaders who leased or bought shiny security objects (AI weapons detectors, metal detectors, AI cameras, etc.) with the pandemic money may face the leased hardware being repossessed. Software subscriptions to the AI that operates the AI systems will have to be renewed or terminated. Schools will have to absorb from their operating budgets the repair, replacement, and related costs.

School leaders will also have to be prepared to explain to their school community why school safety measures are being cut back.  School leaders who used pandemic money for quick-fixes to to solve school safety political and public relations pressures may find that those chickens will come home to roost. Should an incident occur, they could even potentially have to explain in a civil litigation lawsuit why they decreased safety measures that they recently chose to add at their schools.

Plan and prepare now for tomorrow’s cuts to school safety budgets

Superintendents, school boards, principals, and school safety administrators need to start planning now for tomorrow’s reality if they are relying upon COVID relief dollars or state grants for school safety measures.  Things to consider include:

  1. Identify all school safety and student support programs that are currently dependent upon federal pandemic relief money and state grants.
  2. Itemize all personnel and programs from #1 above that can be absorbed into the school/district operating budget when federal funds and state grants are gone.
  3. Itemize those personnel and programs that will be eliminated.
  4. Identify the potential student needs, behaviors, aggression, violence, etc. that will exist and increase as a result of cut personnel and programs.
  5. Critically think as teams about what the areas in #4 above will look like, how you can prevent or reduce their impact, and what you will need to prepare for these realities.
  6. Develop authentic, transparent, and timely communications plans for communicating with students, staff, parents, community partner agencies, and your school community about items 1-5.

This is just a starting point. The picture is not very pretty. We foresee the likelihood for continued upticks in aggression, violence, and other safety concerns when pandemic relief money runs dry.

We want our school leaders to see this potential too — but to see it now, not when it is too late to start planning.

Dr. Kenneth S. Trump is President of National School Safety and Security Services  

National School Safety and Security Services

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