School security vendors are spending millions for lobbyists to pressure state legislators to provide taxpayer dollars for products and tech they sell — whether or not it is what superintendents and school boards really need and can sustain

Posted by on March 9, 2024

Dear Superintendents and School Boards: Your state legislators are providing you the “best” school security that money can buy — money lobbied for by school safety vendors’ lobbyists, that is!

Plus, it will be up to your school district to find the funds to repair, replace, and/or sustain whatever you get once the vendors make their money grabs and disappear after the grant funds are eaten up.

Truth is, it may not actually be the “best” school security.  In fact, it may not even be based upon what a comprehensive security assessment of your schools’ risks, threats, vulnerabilities, and needs would identify as a priority need.  It may not be something you need at all.

But this really is about vendors making money, not necessarily your specific districts’ identified school safety needs.

Security vendors spend millions to lobby state politicians to loosen money for shiny objects and technology they sell

An Associated Press story on Friday reported that more than 20 states have enacted or proposed digital school mapping of school facilities in response to school shootings or, more accurately, in response to fear of school shootings. Three states alone were reported as having allocated more than $38 million in funds for digital mapping.

The reporter noted how many of the state laws and bills “contain nearly identical wording championed by” the digital mapping company featured in the story.  The New Jersey law even required a phrase that the company reportedly tried to trademark.  While some states have allowed local schools to decide the vendors, other states have selected the vendor for schools in their state.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this story was the curtain it pulled back to show the organized lobbying efforts of security vendors behind the scenes:

Critical Response Group has hired lobbyists in more than 20 states to advocate for specific standards, according to an AP review of state lobbying records. Competitors also have engaged lobbyists to wrangle over the precise wording. In some states, lawmakers have gone with a more generic label of “school mapping data.”

Four companies offering digital mapping among their services — Critical Response Group, Centegix, GeoComm and Navigate360 — have together spent more than $1.4 million on lobbyists in 15 states, according to an AP analysis. Their costs are unknown in some states where lobbyist payments aren’t publicly reported.

But rest assured, this digital mapping is the tip of the iceberg in terms of likely lobbying by security product and tech vendors targeting schools at state houses across the country. There are red flags that lobbying is likely going on for AI and other weapons detection, emergency panic buttons, and more!

Sustainability is the key, but most grants only fund the seed money for the first steps

“The best day of your life is when you get the grant.  The worst day of your life is when you get the grant.”

This was a piece of advice I received the very first time I worked in a school district where we pursued state and federal grants for school safety projects.  The idea is simple but insightful: It’s exciting when you get “free” outside money for your schools for school safety. But then you have to implement it and later on sustain it when the grant money is gone.

Sustainability is a critical issue.  One of the benefits of having been in the school safety field for more than three decades is that I can see patterns occur over time.

Failures to sustain school safety, security, and emergency preparedness measures have haunted school districts, state governments, and even the federal government for decades. The AP news story provided a perfect example of how digital mapping of schools was funded (and as I recall, it was driven then by a private security vendor) more than two decades ago, only to eventually fade away:

Washington began digitally mapping every school in the state 20 years ago, after the deadly Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, and provided annual funding to the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs to operate the map repository.

But over time, schools quit updating the information and the maps grew stale. The state funding proved insufficient and legislators ended the program in 2021, just as more states launched similar initiatives.

Security consultant David Corr ran the program and wishes it could have continued, but he said that for emergency responders, “wrong information is even worse than lack of information.”

We saw similar dynamics in Ohio years ago. School mapping was done by vendors. The digital maps were sent to the Ohio Attorney General. But who locally would have those plans, were they updated and how, do local law enforcement officials have immediate access, and what is the Ohio Attorney General’s office really going to do with them anyway?

My bet is that school to school, district to district, the answers to these questions if asked today would vary greatly. Given the high turnover in principals and superintendents, I question whether anyone in many districts today would even know that this mapping was once done — and if so, where and how to access it!

Security vendors have lobbyists at state capitols. Best practices and common sense do not.

School safety best practices and common sense do not have lobbyists at your state capitols. Professionals armed with research-based best practices and experienced school security professionals are not paying for statehouse lobbyists. There is no one with strong influence effectively whispering requests into politicians’ ears to have school safety policy and funding guided by best practices and common sense.

However, school safety and security vendors do have lobbyists. More and more they are dictating to state politicians what money should be loosened up out of state taxpayer coffers to fund school security hardware, products, and technology they sell.  And state politicians are capitulating.

Bottom line for superintendents and school boards: Follow the money — and don’t rush in blindly.

Most superintendents and school boards are blind to the politics of school safety. They need to understand that they are pawns in bigger money games now being driven by lobbyists for security vendors. And they often do not have strong voices representing them and their districts when such lobbying is taking place.

Professional associations and their lobbyists for superintendents and school boards need to wake up. They need to speak up to the manipulation of school safety policy and funding at the state and federal levels. Education associations must also not be co-conspirators with the vendors and their lobbyists, by voice or by silence, simply because these same vendors grease the coffers of the education associations and their conferences. (See my other blog article on “Dancing with the Devil.”)

Most importantly, school leaders need to be critical thinkers and strategic school safety leaders. In doing so, school leaders sometimes need to exercise restraint and not jump on the bandwagon because someone at the state capitol is dangling some one-time “free” grant money.

Leadership sometimes involves restraint. It should definitely involve critical thinking!

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

National School Safety and Security Services

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