Update: As expected, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on Saturday, June 25.
Congress is poised, as of this writing, to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), the gun and school safety measure carefully negotiated over the last few weeks in response to the mass murders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y, last month, and other incidents this year.
While there is not a single solution to prevent such attacks, many Americans believe our nation needs to do more, particularly to protect schools from the growing threat of targeted mass violence. While there are many root causes, and solutions that can work to prevent such violence, we can act in the short term to reduce vulnerabilities through reasonable initiatives to protect young children who simply deserve a safe place to learn.
When prevention efforts fail, measures that address security vulnerabilities can help deter, limit, and enhance the response to school violence—as part of a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to bolstering school safety and security. Yet many schools struggle with the cost of meeting security needs, as well as effectively implementing the right policies and procedures that are critical to the effectiveness of any security measure.
The Security Industry Association (SIA) supports the BSCA, which among other provisions includes key increases for federal assistance to schools over the next 5 years, namely, a $300 million increase for programs under the STOP School Violence Act of 2018 and an additional $1 billion for Title IV grants through the U.S. Department of Education, both of which include sources of funding for school security improvements.
Within these amounts, $100 million in increased funding is provided for the School Violence Prevention Program, a facility-security-focused grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Justice Office Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). This is a 40% increase over baseline, bringing it to total about $75 million annually. $20 million in additional funding is provided for fiscal 2022, which means there is likely to be a second round of applications for 2022 (the application deadline had been on June 21).
Additionally, the bill includes the Luke and Alex School Safety Act (named in honor of Luke Hoyer and Alex Schachter, two students killed in the 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.), which codifies the multiagency SchoolSafety.gov clearinghouse for best practice information. Among its physical security resources are the PASS Safety and Security Guidelines for K-12 Schools developed by the nonprofit Partner Alliance for Safer Schools. As a supporter and co-founder of PASS, SIA strongly recommends use of this free resource by district and school officials as well as solutions providers, both to help assess policies, procedures, and equipment and technology needs under a unified framework, and to help structure funding requests for needed improvements.
What else can be done? While a number of states are looking at additional ways to bolster school security, two other proposals in Congress would immediately provide resources without requiring additional appropriations.
One measure, S.4369, introduced by U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and supported by 19 other Senators, would allow districts and schools to repurpose unspent COVID-19 relief dollars allocated to schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, estimated at over $150 billion, for school security upgrades.
Another measure, H.R.8009, the Student and Teacher Safety Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., would fully authorize and encourage schools to use Title IV, Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) block grant funding for school safety infrastructure. Currently, these funds (received by nearly every public school) could be used in general for “school safety” in addition to other allowable uses, as long as it doesn’t involve construction. And as mentioned above, the BCSA includes $1 billion for such grants over the next five years, roughly a 15% or $200 million increase (the block grants totaled $1.3 billion in fiscal 2022). However, schools have historically been reluctant to utilize the funding for security infrastructure enhancements without further clarity on allowable uses, direction on how to prioritize, and lifting program limitations on technology infrastructure and facility renovation—all of which would be addressed by the Student and Teacher Safety Act.
In the meantime, the summer months are a critically important time for school officials to reassess facility and campus security posture. The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools has a recommended summer “To Do” list for both school officials and solutions providers. The most important is to review and update emergency operations plans, as well as related personnel roles and training. Two other critical areas—where recommended procedures and related technologies are often changing—are access control and emergency communications systems. Check out the list for more information.
Throughout a difficult and stressful time, the community of security professionals unified by the mission of keeping our students and staff safe work tirelessly, and they clearly have busy months ahead.
Jake Parker is Senior Director of Government Relations at the Security Industry Association.