February 11, 2018

Bills earmark funds for school security

As gunshots rang out in Aztec High School one morning last December, a substitute teacher was left to improvise.

She did not have a key to lock the door to her classroom, but ushered her students into a neighboring room and barricaded the door with a couch.

The gunman entered the classroom the students had just left and fired several rounds through the wall that stood between them. The bullets did not hit any of the students, and the substitute teacher’s swift thinking was credited with saving lives.

The shooting left two students dead elsewhere on campus, and the gunman — who did not attend the school — killed himself.

“It absolutely could have been a lot worse,” Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter told a legislative committee last month.

Coming at a time when there seems to be another school shooting somewhere in America at least once a week, the episode has become a call to action at the Legislature this session for funding to pay for security improvements on campuses around the state.

The state House of Representatives voted 66-0 last week to set aside $5 million a year for five years for security efforts. And the state Senate went even further, approving 40-0 a bill that would set aside $10 million a year for four years.

Still, the bills have raised questions about whether any amount of money can really prevent the next tragedy. And it is unclear exactly how much money schools would need for security measures.

The bills would earmark funds for a range of security strategies — door locks, video cameras, communications systems, perimeter gates, fencing, campus checkpoints, intercoms and vestibules.

Many schools have added security measures in recent years. And legislators have been flooded in the past with requests from school districts for exactly these sort of improvements.

A database of infrastructure spending shows lawmakers have obliged, setting aside at least $2.4 million for security expenses at schools in 2016. That included alarms, locks and gates. The state provided nearly $1.8 million the previous year.

Santa Fe Public Schools is seeking funding this year to install new locks. It has used similar funding in the past to buy cameras and alarms.

These are not necessarily one-time costs, however, as some systems require upgrades just to keep up with changing technology.

House Bill 130, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pandy, R-Aztec, and Senate Bill 239, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, do not create new funding for school security. But by earmarking the money for security, it could allow schools to more easily get money for these expenses through the state’s system for funding campus improvements.

Muñoz acknowledged in one committee hearing that there is no way to control everything — to prevent every disaster.

“But we have to be prepared,” he said.

The shooting in Aztec is still fresh in the minds of many around the Roundhouse. So, too, is a shooting at a middle school in Roswell in 2014 that injured two students.

The number of active shooter incidents has increased dramatically over the last couple decades, from 1 in 2000 to 20 in 2015.

The largest proportion, about 44 percent, occurred in businesses. About 23 percent occurred in schools, including colleges and universities.

But according to the National Institute of Justice, fewer students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being victims of crime at school from 1992 to 2013. Homicides on campus are relatively rare, and students are less likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon at school than 10 years ago.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Bill Soules, a Democrat from Las Cruces, argued that point during a hearing on similar legislation last month, saying campuses remain among the safest places for young people.

“We could spend the entire public school budget trying to make them a little bit safer and a little bit safer,” he said.

Soules said safety in a school might really mean ensuring buildings are well-maintained and stable.

The majority of studies over the last couple of decades suggest that as visible security measures increased, students did not necessarily feel safer. In fact, they may feel less safe.

Ben Fisher, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville who studies criminal justice, points to research showing that planning and preparation as well as the social climate in schools and threat assessment can make the difference in improving the safety of campuses.

“Sometimes cameras and metal detectors feel good to have in schools,” he said. “Even if there is no research showing they make schools safer.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford