The mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas has once again led some policymakers to call for investing in school safety and law enforcement. This is despite significant investments already made that have resulted in no reduction in the pace or devastation of school shootings.
Equally important, increased spending on security comes at the expense of investments in school counsellors, social workers, nurses and psychologists. So policymakers continue to trade security for mental health and social services, stealing from Peter to pay Paul.
The problem becomes even more acute in the absence of sensible firearms legislation. The Uvalde investigation clarified that school security alone is unlikely to prevent school shootings. But if lawmakers fail to tackle gun reform, schools will likely face even more pressure to increase spending on both law enforcement and mental health supports. .
As a school finance researcher, I study resource trade-offs and the extent to which district leaders’ budget allocation decisions promote efficient and equitable spending. A common refrain I hear is that the public doesn’t know how schools spend the money. Data accessible to the public make it possible to research how much any public school district spends on security and how that has changed over time. Schools report all of this information through dashboards and downloadable datasets.
Over the past two decades, data shows that districts have spent an increasing share of their budgets on security: school resource officers, security guards, metal detectors, and camera systems. (A school resource officer is a sworn and often armed law enforcement officer who, in theory, has special training in working with young people.) Our research found, for example, that since 1999-2000, Texas school districts have doubled their funds earmarked for school safety. This school year, Texas spent $254 million, or about $64 per student, on security, in inflation-adjusted terms. In 2020-21, Texas school districts spent a total of $665 million or $124 per student.
The numbers look similar when we use a three-year average and omit the pandemic years in which many schools were closed. For a typical Texas district, school safety expenditures now represent 11.6% of student support services expenditures, or about 1.1% of total district expenditures, up from 7% in 1999-2000 or 0. 6% of total district expenditures. During this same period, the proportion of the budget devoted to guidance and social work services has remained stable, while the proportion devoted to community services has decreased.
This trend isn’t just in Texas. Studies show that schools are hiring more law enforcement and security officers. Districts also assign more of these staff to their poorest schools and to schools serving a higher proportion of students of color. A report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office found that 42% of high schools have at least one school resource officer, and 1.6 million students attend a school with a police officer but no school counselor.
Using the same data, our research found that a typical secondary school employs the full-time equivalent of 1.75 law enforcement or security officers, compared to 0.4 social workers, 0.6 nurses, and 0 .4 psychologist. Looking at school districts, we found 18% more full-time equivalent security guards in schools serving high percentages of black students compared to schools with high percentages of white students. Districts also place a disproportionately higher number of security guards in their schools serving a greater proportion of Latinx and low-income students, although the differences are not as large. While people have argued that some schools need more officers because they have higher levels of student misbehaviour, few would support policies that increase the number of untrained school resource officers. in schools. Unfortunately, with rapidly increasing expenditures on school safety and personnel, schools are more likely to hire inexperienced or undertrained school resource officers.
One of the resounding messages from communities affected by school shootings is the call for policy makers to do something. However, under pressure to “do something,” policymakers often rely on schools alone to address broader political issues, such as gun violence. After the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where 20 freshmen and six adults were murdered, Texas adopted a “school marshal” program allowing districts to arm their teachers. Data shows that this policy is unpopular among educators, with few districts opting into the program. Other GOP-led states have passed similar legislation, opening the door to greater spending on school safety at the expense of competing school priorities.
In the rush to ‘do something’, policy makers often rely on schools alone to solve general political problems, such as gun violence.
Some members of Congress want to require school districts to make schools safer by reallocating funds intended to deal with learning disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. As lawmakers respond to calls to action, advocates must not let rising school safety spending distract from gun reform. Although recent federal legislation expands background checks on gun buyers and closes some loopholes, the new law does not include regulations backed by major gun safety groups. Everytown for Gun Safety, a national advocacy organization, has called for universal background checks, waiting periods, concealed carry restrictions and red flag laws to keep guns out of reach. of those who represent a danger to themselves or to others. Most Americans Support These Reforms. Such changes would likely save many more lives than increasing the number of police officers in schools.
In addition, increased spending on school security potentially crowds out other investments in education. All school expenses represent a choice of one type of expense over another, and a school district’s budget should reflect the shared values of the community it serves. Money spent on school safety could be used for early childhood education, after-school programs, music and arts education, as well as student mental health.
As advocates call for legislative action that goes beyond “thoughts and prayers,” education officials and policymakers must ensure that changes to education policies do more than divert attention from deadlocks related to gun regulations. Changes made in the name of security must be effective, and they must serve the best interests of communities.