Seeking a balance on school security

When it comes to keeping schools safe, Idaho’s school districts are “all over the map,” says Matt McCarter of the State Department of Education.

Some districts are better prepared for the unthinkable — and have paid better attention to school security issues. Others lag behind. It isn’t a matter or will or interest, says McCarter, but it is a function of resources and expertise.

Burley Drill
State Bureau of Homeland Security officials headed a security drill at Burley High School in August.

Now, the state wants to provide additional money and support. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s 2014-15 budget would ramp up spending on safe and drug-free schools by nearly $2.4 million — a 647 percent increase. The request comes as the state is putting $100,000 into a task force review of school security issues.

On Wednesday, McCarter gave a legislative K-12 interim committee a walkthrough of the task force’s work, and an overview of the school security issue. McCarter, Luna’s staffer assigned to school security task force, described a delicate balance. On the one hand, the state wants to help school districts plug their security gaps. On the other hand, the state wants to respect local control.

This difficult balance is exemplified by the question of arming teachers. State law allows teachers to carry firearms, with the local school board’s approval. At least four school districts are considering the idea. The task force — which includes school officials, local law enforcement and state Bureau of Homeland Security officials — does not recommend arming teachers. But the task force isn’t recommending a change in the law either, saying school boards should retain the final say.

Here’s a closer look at what McCarter had to say Wednesday:

  • The task force recommends creating an “Idaho Center for School Safety.” Among its purposes: providing a clearinghouse for information on best practices, and ensuring that all of the state’s schools conduct regular, and uniform, threat assessments to measure local risks.
  • The Education Department isn’t waiting on a clearinghouse, and is working with local schools to conduct threat assessments. So far, 28 schools have completed these reviews — a mix of large and small schools from urban and rural districts. The state wants 75 assessments in hand by January, in time to provide lawmakers with a sampling from about a tenth of the state’s schools.
  • During the 2014 session, lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter will have to decide whether they want to beef up spending on security. Luna is seeking $2,755,700 for school security in 2014-15, up from this year’s $368,600 line item. Each school district would receive at least $1,500, McCarter said; the rest of the money would be distributed based on average daily attendance.
  • Meanwhile, districts will have to do a better job of explaining what they’re doing with the security money they already receive. The Education Department concedes it has little oversight over this money. But under a provision of this year’s K-12 budget, districts will be required to report how they’re spending school security money; the Education Department will post the information on its website by Dec. 31, 2014.

Ultimately, there’s only so much the state can do to ensure school safety. State officials say they can provide some structure, but on-the-ground, site-specific expertise can only come from the local level. “What we really need to see is leadership at the local level,” Roger Brown, Otter’s education aide, told lawmakers Wednesday.