Arizona school safety task force calls for legislative changes | #schoolsaftey

A task force convened by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is seeking several legislative changes to improve school safety by addressing a shortage of safety officers and mental health professionals in schools.

Many of the recommendations from the task force deal with the School Safety Program, a fund administered by the Arizona Department of Education that provides grants to school districts and charters.

Mike Kurtenbach, the department’s director of school safety, said that of the 301 schools that received grants from the department for school resource officers over the past year, 138 have not been able to fill those positions. 

He said money is not the issue, but that there is a shortage of qualified applicants who also meet legislative requirements for the grant program.

Currently, the program can only pay for four specific positions, including juvenile probation officers, counselors, social workers and school resource officers – officers who are assigned to work at schools full time.

The task force is asking for a legislative fix to tweak the law regulating the grants to make it easier for retired police officers and off-duty police to fill those open school safety positions. 

“We’re trying to find ways to tap into that talent,” Kurtenbach said.

The task force’s recommendation would also allow the grants to also pay for “school safety officers,”  off-duty cops who choose to fill shifts at schools on a piecemeal basis.

The task force also wants legislators to modify the grant program to allow it to pay for school psychologists and other safety measures, like A.I. technology, that improves the physical security of schools.

Kurtenbach said the task force is also seeking to modify the way the state retirement system for police officers works to allow retired police officers to go back to work as school safety officers without risking their pension. 

According to the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, in most cases, retired officers could have their pension suspended if they go back to work for their department within six months of their retirement. They also can never return to work for the department “if the position is the same or substantially similar to the position from which you retired.”

Kurtenbach said that complicates bringing retirees – especially former SROs – back as school safety officers, because officers need a sponsoring law enforcement agency to take them on to do the job.

“How do we find a way with that officer that wants to continue working that school, but is separated from their home agency to continue to do so,” he said.

While Kurtenbach said finding officers to work school campuses is not an issue of cost — the School Safety Grant Program received $80 million in funding this year — he acknowledged that adding additional uses for the fund, especially new school safety infrastructure expenses, will require additional funding from lawmakers.

But both Horne and Kurtenbach said they do not know exactly how much funding they will need.

“That’s going to be a big number,” Kurtenbach said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Every change recommended by the task force will require action by Arizona’s legislature, which is controlled by a narrow Republican majority.

Horne, a Republican, said he is confident the task force’s proposal will see bipartisan support at the legislature, because his task force included both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“I think involving legislators from both parties from day one, so they both have input into and buy into the conclusion, is a model I’m very proud of,” Horne said.

Department of Education staff said it has a lawmaker willing to sponsor its bill but declined to name who it is, because the official language has not yet been finalized.

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