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Wisconsin law enforcement, educators ask Legislature to fully fund Office of School Safety | #schoolsaftey

Wisconsin law enforcement officers and educators are asking lawmakers to reconsider cutting the state’s Office of School Safety, a program that has been in place since 2018 to prevent violence in schools.  

The office, created by Republican Gov. Scott Walker after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, distributes safety grants to Wisconsin schools, provides training and has blueprints of school layouts.  

Attorney General Josh Kaul said several programs, including a 24/7 student hotline, will likely be cut if the state Legislature doesn’t fully fund the Office of School Safety. The Joint Finance Committee voted not to fund the program this month.

The hotline, called Speak Up, Speak Out, has fielded more than 7,000 reports of bullying, suicidal thoughts, sexual abuse, mental health crises and school threats since its inception.  

“Without the funding we need in the months ahead, we are going to have really difficult conversations with schools around the state about the programs that will be lost,” Kaul said. “Schools are going to have to scramble to figure out how they are going to replace those programs and whether they can afford to replace those programs.” 

The Department of Justice asked for $2.2 million over the next two years to fund the Office of School Safety. The office is currently bolstered by federal funding, including $1.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that’s set to end before 2024.  

As of this spring, the office employed 16 people, with 12 of those positions funded by time-limited federal dollars.  

The office is set to receive $556,500, enough to pay for 3.8 positions. Kaul said that’s not enough to continue much of the work. For example, the 24/7 hotline is staffed by nine people.  

Kaul said other avenues, such as grants, could be explored, but given the state’s nearly $7 billion surplus, he believes $2.2 million should be directed towards keeping children safe.  

“This is not about affordability,” Kaul said. “The Office of School Safety can be funded for less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s budget surplus.” 

In a previous statement to WPR, joint finance co-chair Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said the money is sufficient.  

“The Joint Committee on Finance continued funding the Office of School Safety at current levels, to continue performing the core functions of the Office,” Born’s statement said. “The committee cannot backfill the expansion of government that occurred in nearly every agency due to one-time federal money, and this office is no different.” 

Local, national leaders weigh in on success of office 

Matt Barnes, deputy chief of the Wausau Police Department, said the 24/7 hotline has alerted police to several incidents in Wausau schools, and it’s “terrifying” to think about what could have happened if the hotline had not been in place. Barnes believes Wausau is safer because of the office.

“It’s a lot harder to be a kid today, and it’s continuing to get more difficult,” Barnes said. “If there is one place a child deserves to feel safe, it’s their school.” 

Bonnie Scholz, the principal at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, said after the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy in November 2021, her school used the Office of School Safety to provide immediate help for teachers, students and their families. Darrell E. Brooks Jr. drove an SUV through the parade route on Nov. 21 in downtown Waukesha, killing six people and injuring more than 60 others. He was given six consecutive life sentences without parole.  

Scholz said more than 50 students and 10 teachers and faculty members were at the parade. Mental health screening and follow-up counseling were made available through the office, Scholz said.  

“We draw students from 40 cities and villages in six counties,” Scholz said. “Protecting people and keeping them safe would seem to be a priority for government structures.” 

National school safety advocates have also weighed in including Safe2Tell, a nonprofit prevention initiative developed as a response to the Columbine tragedy in Colorado and Safe and Sound Schools, a group founded by the parents who lost children at Sandy Hook.   

“Safe and Sound Schools believe the safety of Wisconsin’s students and school staff are the greatest priority of its citizens,” Michele Gay, executive director of Safe and Sound Schools said in a statement. “We urge Wisconsin legislators to stand up for students and school communities and continue funding OSS to provide for the critical needs of school safety at this unprecedented time of need in our schools and communities.” 

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