Michigan suspended school security funding, expanded after Parkland, during pandemic

·9 min read

Michigan officials had $25 million in grants to hand out to improve security in school buildings in 2018, when the state's school safety grant program was significantly bolstered after a shooter killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Schools and education agencies applied for $69 million in improvements, nearly three times the funds available. Another $25 million went to schools in 2019.

But in 2020, the Legislature suspended that grant program because of the pandemic.

More money for security improvements will be available to schools in 2022 after the two-year hiatus — it'll likely be used to address safety concerns again at the forefront of the minds of parents and caregivers after a 15-year-old allegedly opened fire at Oxford High School on Tuesday, killing four teenagers and injuring several more.

Lawmakers and other policy advocates are also preparing to resume debates over gun control and increased mental health funding for schools, something the Oakland County prosecutor says is overdue.

"If the incident yesterday with four children being murdered and multiple kids being injured is not enough to revisit our gun laws, I don't know what is," Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Wednesday during a news conference where she announced charges against the 15-year-old student accused of killing his classmates.

"We have to do better. How many times does this have to happen? Everyone knows we have become desensitized to school shootings."

School safety grants

In 2018 following Parkland, then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder created a 13-person commission to recommend security improvements in schools. State lawmakers also ramped up spending on the school safety grant program, increasing it from $2 million to $25 million.

In total, schools have received $55 million since 2015 specifically earmarked for school security, according to Lori Dougovito, a spokesperson for the Michigan State Police.

Oxford Community Schools received a $442,773 grant in 2019. Dougovito said schools can use the money for security systems, signage, cameras, intercom systems and other improvements that could bolster safety.

'Intent to kill': A visual timeline of deadly shooting at Oxford High School

More: Oxford 15-year-old facing adult murder charges as 4th student dies in high school shooting

The Legislature suspended the grant program in 2020, effectively suspending it for 2020 and 2021. A letter to school administrators announcing the suspension in July 2020 cited economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

But Dougovito said in an emailed statement that $10 million in funding will be available through the grant program in 2022, allocated by lawmakers in the most recent budget.

Beyond more money, the 2018 safety commission came up with detailed recommendations to increase school security. But those recommendations are not required or mandated in any way and some would require extra funding.

“Districts and the commission and the Office of School Safety and the Michigan State Police can only do so much without proper funding and without legislation to back us up,” Justine Galbraith, a member of the commission and a teacher in Troy, said.

The commission recommended, among 29 total suggestions:

  • Schools conduct physical security assessments by October 2019. It's unclear how many schools did the assessment.

  • Schools install security improvements in interior classrooms, including solid core doors and a barricade device for doors.

  • Schools improve outside security, including designating a single point-of-entry during the school day to ward off intruders.

  • State lawmakers clarify language in the law around the number of safety drills required annually.

The safety commission still meets and is updating its recommendations but the body needs more support from lawmakers to bolster their work, Galbraith said.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee gave unanimous approval to House Bill 5522, a supplemental spending bill for the 2021 financial year, that includes another $10 million for school resource officers primarily responsible for helping school administrators “ensure the physical safety of school buildings and the people in them.”

Half the money would come from federal coronavirus relief funds and half from the state’s general fund. The bill could see further changes as it works its way through the Legislature.

“While much more needs to be done, this is a great first step,” state Rep. Samantha Steckloff, D-Farmington Hills, a member of the committee, said on Twitter.

Michigan gun laws under scrutiny

Michigan law allows most residents who are 18 and older and do not have a felony conviction to buy a handgun, as long as they pass a background check. If that purchase is from a federally licensed dealer though, the purchaser must be 21.

In the Oxford High School shooting, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the suspect used a gun purchased on Black Friday by his father.

It's illegal for a minor to use a gun without adult supervision, but state law is opaque when it comes to accountability for adults who own a gun that is used by a child in the commission of a crime, Attorney General Dana Nessel said. Creative prosecutors have successfully pursued different kinds of charges, up to and including involuntary manslaughter, but Nessel said the state would be well-served to craft access prevention laws.

"This has been a big frustration for me as attorney general in this state, really the lack of specific laws that we have involving the nature of securing a gun so that a child is prevented from access to that weapon," Nessel said.

McDonald echoed these concerned; she did not say that Crumbley's parents would be charged, but suggested that they could be.

More broadly, Nessel said Michigan legislators need to consider implementing a so-called red flag law, a system that allows family members or law enforcement to ask a court to temporarily take away a person's guns. She also thinks legislators should consider increasing the age for legally buying a handgun to 21.

"The fact that we live in a society where even the most basic types of restrictions as it pertains to firearms are just a complete non-starter and our Legislature is wholly unreflective of how the public sees this," Nessel said.

"I'm sure the vast majority of Michiganders would be in favor of a child access prevention law, simply again, requiring guns be stored in a location that children cannot access.

In recent years, most gun reform bills have failed to advance out of either the GOP-controlled House or Senate.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, did not answer Free Press questions about specific legislation. Instead, he provided a broader statement that suggested lawmakers needed to understand more about the circumstances of the Oxford High School shooting before considering any legislative changes.

"It’s a very difficult and narrow road to balance action with freedom. This is nothing short of a tragedy and as a parent, my heart breaks," Shirkey said in the statement.

"We need to give those families room to grieve right now and as more information comes forward about this situation, assess what to do next.”

Despite this school shooting, and the many others in recent years, state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said she doesn't think Michiganders should expect changes in the near future.

"I don't know that I would be optimistic now as a parent, I don't think I would. I would be sitting back thinking, how the heck am I going to send my kid back to that school? It's terrifying," said Bayer, who represents Oxford in the Legislature.

The frequently outspoken Democrat sounded exasperated in discussing the legislative prospects of gun reform. She said the first bill she introduced when she arrived at the Legislature was essentially a red flag law; she thought it wouldn't be controversial, but it's never gained any momentum.

Concern over trauma in students

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a news conference Tuesday in Oxford following the shooting she was not open to talking about policy so soon after the tragedy when asked about student mental health issues.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin said Tuesday that she was looking into a way to use unspent American Rescue Plan dollars, pandemic relief funds meant to help communities, to help the small northern Oakland County enclave recover from the tragedy.

“We’re just trying to surge resources into the community, not just for the immediate term, but for the long term,” she said. “We know they're going to need it.”

More broadly, concern over student mental health issues has risen through the pandemic. Schools look different for a lot of students returning after up to a year in virtual classes. The pandemic itself is traumatic for many children. A shooting that has reverberated through the entire community of Oxford will likely add to the trauma for many.

“While no parent or child should have to experience this, it is important to take care of the mental health needs of survivors and those impacted by this tragic event," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"We encourage parents and caregivers to use available resources as their children navigate grief and process this traumatic event.”

Trina Tocco, director of the Michigan Education Justice Coalition, said her organization is hearing about "high levels of aggression or frustration" from students this school year.

"There are some sets of youth in Michigan who are seeing a lot of violence in their communities," she said. "Maybe not a student bringing a gun to school, but that doesn't mean that these kids aren't experiencing violence and death and disruption."

All of that necessitates improved mental health intervention, and funding to hire more school social workers, counselors and psychologists. Schools have more cash this year through federal relief funding, meant to help students recover, and they can use that money to hire counselors or improve behavioral health programs.

But, Tocco said, it is so far impossible to track how much schools are spending to improve mental health or how many new counselors have been hired, if any at all.

"By the time we actually figure out what schools are spending their money on, the money's gonna be gone," she said.

Free Press staff writer Paul Egan contributed to this report.

Contact Lily Altavena: laltavena@freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan suspended school safety funding program during pandemic

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting