“We have to learn from the things that happen not only to us but around the country,” Murry said. “We have to be able to look at the different incidents that have gone on in schools, and we need to look at what we have in place and see if that could happen to us.”
Altogether, public K-12 schools in Louisiana increased their annual spending on safety measures to at least $32 million in the 2017-18 school year, the latest for which data are available, from $28 million in 2015-16, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. Among the districts spending the most per student are Caddo, which includes Shreveport, and West Feliciana, which includes St. Francisville.
The Caddo district spends $3 million a year to have law enforcement officers on its campuses, said Murry, who updated his district’s spending to current levels in an interview. Caddo also has 65,000 cameras that it can monitor from both on and off-campus, he said.
An analysis of the state data indicates that more than half of the state’s school districts increased safety spending. But while all of the school districts would undoubtedly like to improve safety, few have the resources to allocate large sums each year.
One problem, school officials say, is that while some federal and state grants are available, much of the safety spending has to come from their general funds, which means that they have to cut educational and other services to pay for it.
Justin Carrier, chief financial officer for Acadia Parish schools in the Lafayette metropolitan area, estimated that his district spends more than $75,000 a year on safety from its general fund. Its most recent safety additions included a fence around campuses, security camera upgrades and more exterior lighting.
“We want to do another perimeter fence in two of our other schools,” Carrier said. “It just takes some time and funding.”
Acadia Parish has increased safety spending over the last three years, he said, as funds were freed up after completing renovations to older buildings.
“Financially, in this particular district, we’ve had some restraints,” Carrier said. “We have aging buildings and deferred maintenance. Our schools are not really new. We just now have the funding available.”
There were 116 school shootings in the United States last year–the highest ever, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Louisiana has had eight school shooting incidents since 2016, according to the center, which defines them as every instance in which a gun is brandished or fired or a bullet hits school property. There also were at least 10 reported threats to schools in the state in the past year.
A 13-year-old student at Moss Bluff Middle School in Lake Charles was arrested after she reportedly wrote, “I’ll be the next school shooter,” on social media in September. At Lee High School in Baton Rouge, a 14-year-old student was charged with terrorizing last week after reportedly making gun threats on social media.
“One of our main goals over the last two years is how do we take our facilities and make them safer,” said West Feliciana Parish Schools Superintendent Hollis Milton. “It’s a proactive move. If you watch what’s happening across the United States, you want to make sure you do everything you can to put your schools at the best level.”
Gun violence is a problem across the nation, and Louisiana has had fewer incidents involving schools than many other states. But Louisiana also has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, and that adds to the pressure on school officials to provide their own defenses.
Louisiana has no minimum age requirements for possessing shotguns and a 17-year minimum age for possessing handguns. The state does not require background checks for private gun sales.
One person in Louisiana is killed by a gun every nine hours, with most of those deaths coming through street and domestic violence.
Some of the money schools spend on safety comes from federal or state grants, while the rest is taken from the schools’ already cash-strapped budgets.
Murry said that if the state gave his district more money for security, it could use more of the $6.7 million it is taking from its general fund for classroom instruction.
The district uses $1.4 million a year from a bond issue to cover some of the security costs. Murry said the district started working on converting all of its schools to single entry points about six years ago and hopes to be finished in 10 years.
“Do everything that you can do knowing that you can’t do everything,” Murry said. “That’s the way we have to look at this.”
Caddo Parish schools also received a $200,000 grant this year from the U.S. Department of Justice for mental-health training. The district has a psychologist who performs threat assessments, but its focus now is to create more situational awareness among other faculty and staff to help them recognize and deal with potential threats.
“The quicker we can realize that something’s not right, the more options we have to keep kids safe,” Murry said.
Caddo schools also received a $500,000 Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant from the state Education Department about seven years ago, he said, to create an emergency readiness information portal.
Law enforcement and other first responders have access to this web-based program, which shows the schools’ floor plans and the location of their cameras. The district also brought its crisis response plan up to date to comply with a national standard.
“We will continue to do these things as money is available–to create single entry point schools, to improve our camera systems, to improve access control and to make sure we keep law enforcement on every campus,” Murry said.
It is hard to tell precisely what schools in some parishes are spending on safety or to compare one parish to another. The state Education Department does not have formal guidelines for districts about how to report safety spending.
The state figures show that East Baton Rouge, Rapides, Ouachita, Natchitoches and Terrebonne Parishes, for instance, are among those that have increased spending on school safety measures.
In Orleans Parish, spending on school safety dropped from over $1 million in 2015-16 to $230,000 in 2017-18, according to the state figures. But school officials there say that reflected a shift to charters that now operate outside the district’s purview.
West Feliciana schools spent more in the last two years on software and other technologies to ensure their campuses are as safe as possible, Milton said.
“We probably spend more than what even the state is reporting,” Milton said. “Safety is always going to be at the forefront of what we do, and our budget is showing that as a priority.”
The district, which has a much smaller enrollment than Caddo Parish, spends $160,000 on security each year. It has resource officers from the sheriff’s department at each school, and partners with the sheriff’s office for active-shooter training and simulations.
Its most recent security updates included a buzz-in system, which restricts anyone from entering the school without permission, software technology that filters through students’ emails to flag any threatening language, and more cameras.
The West Feliciana schools also received a federal safety grant of $150,000 for safety trainings, radios for administrators, new signs, fencing and cameras.
The district uses local funds to pay for two full-time school resource officers, and the other two are provided by the West Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office. Milton said the district plans to continue investing in safety improvements.
“Our hope is to create a safe learning environment through building strong relationships, annual safety training, and having the latest technology to help us prevent incidents,” he said.
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