The cost of school safety

With the Valentine’s Day school shooting still lingering over his head, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that promises safer Florida schools on March 9. But even before the paperwork could reach the governor’s desk, educators and parents wondered what the bill would mean for schools in Miami-Dade County.

School safety was the trending topic as a few hundred parents, students and educators gathered in the auditorium of William H.Turner Technical Arts High School on Thursday at 6:30 p.m to discuss the “The View of District 2,” a town hall meeting spearheaded by the area’s board member, Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Earlier that day, a seventh-grade student at District 2’s Brownsville Middle School was found with a pellet gun, which caused a stir in the community.

Some parents came to the meeting to find out what the then-pending legislation would mean for student safety while others wanted information about alternative solutions.

“I would like you to provide the pros and cons of teachers carrying guns?” One parent asked, “What would be the ramifications of the teachers snapping, losing their minds in the classroom?”

However, the law does not allow arming of instructional personnel, and the school district and law enforcement would have to agree on how it will be implemented, said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, who oversees the school district’s office of intergovernmental affairs.

Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho has said that he does not plan to arm “any education professional in our schools.”

Dubbed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” the bill beefs up security and mental health services at schools, allows trained staff to carry handguns and makes major changes to gun regulation.

District officials believe restorative justice practices — a program implemented in January 2017 — is a powerful tool being already used that can reduce school violence, said Linda Amica-Roberts, the program’s administrative director.

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MDCPS Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall

Restorative justice started as an alternative to suspensions. Instead of just punishing students, teachers or counselors would speak to students to find out the root of bad behavior. The practice has now evolved into a solution for bullying. It opens a gateway to communication between the students and teachers, helps reduce the red flags in potentially violent students and creates a direct and open line for students to report issues to adults, she said.

“What happens most often is the kids that people don’t usually have a connection or relationship with, the most troubled kids, those are the ones that typically don’t know who to go to for healthy relationships,” she said. “If we could build those relationships and let them know they can come to us and let us know that there is a gun over there.”

Amica-Roberts said the practice is being used at Brownsville Middle and as a result, before the student could get into a classroom, administrators were alerted.

Tawana Akins, who leads the Math department at Holmes Elementary School, wanted to know when the practice, which is being used at five middle schools and 17 success centers, would be extended to elementary schools. Regina Davis, a grandparent and leader of a parent group,  said she was thankful for the practice.

“Thank you for having restorative justice in our community. … people present don’t realize it was one of our middle schools who is doing restorative justice that said something today, so we ought to be grateful for restorative justices,” she said.

On the other hand, the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas” measure will ensure that a school resource officer is assigned to every school and more mental health services are offered.

It also imposes stricter regulations on gun purchases such as raising the permitted age to 21 and adding a three-day waiting period.

However, Ron Steiger, the chief financial officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said that the new safety measure is going to cost the district and taxpayers millions.

Even though the state is disbursing $97.5 million for the officers and another $69 million for mental health, the county will fall short by $20.7 million because of its size and need.

Steiger said the funds are allocated based on the average need of every county, regardless of the size. With MDCPS being the largest school district in the state, that rule leaves the district in arrears.

“We [MDCPS] are the average. So all they are doing is taking state funds, which a lot of it comes from us, and giving it to other districts,” he said.

In addition to the funding compression, Steiger said there is an overall imbalance in the schools’ budget from prior financial requirements.

According to Steiger, the total amount of state and local funding received for the 2018-19 school year is $12.6 million, including the safety increase, which is only 0.4 percent. Yet, the projected increases caused by the bill, employee benefits and utilities rolled into other expenses leaves the school district with a deficit of $20.7 million.

This story was originally published in The Miami Times March 14, 2018.

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