School Safety Training Commences With Focus On Mental, Social-Emotional Health

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School Safety Training Commences With Focus On Mental, Social-Emotional Health

By Erica Irish
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — As more than 1,000 stakeholders from education communities in Indiana visited Indianapolis for two days of advanced school safety training, the state’s top education leader said Monday schools need to focus as much on student mental health as they do on restricting access to school buildings.

“It’s going to be super heavy this year on social-emotional and mental health,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “From the beginning, the department said this is a big piece of school safety that we need to make sure we are covering.”

 

The training conference is organized under the Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy and has offered basic training to 740 education leaders and advanced training to 3,200 school representatives. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the academy.

During the legislative session that ended in April, lawmakers introduced a swathe of bills designed to improve school security. Approaches and opinions varied, however, and by the end of the session, several bills devoted to enhancing protections for student mental, social and emotional health were stripped down and revised.

For example, House Enrolled Act 1004, authored by Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, served as an omnibus bill written in response to a report commissioned by a task force after a 2018 school shooting at Noblesville West Middle School in which a 13-year-old student injured a classmate and teacher. The report listed mental health and social-emotional services as a top priority.

In its original form, the bill would have allowed schools to receive state dollars to add mental health treatment services and social-emotional wellness programs.

But by the end of the session, lawmakers had removed all references to those services from the bill, and instead placed revised guidelines in Senate Enrolled Act 325. The new plan establishes a “Student and Parent Support Services Grant Program” to fund mental and emotional health services, so long as schools involve parents at virtually every step of the process, remedying a concern noted by conservative interest groups and parents’ rights organizations.

McCormick said the mental health discussion is only just beginning and – like the other issues at the school safety forum ranging from active shooter training to human trafficking prevention to child abuse reporting – relies on local input to best protect students.

From her experience as an educator, she said, added parental consent tends to harm rather than help the process.

“If you have to have layers and layers of parent permission or pre-determination to accept that assistance, it becomes very problematic for our students in crisis,” McCormick said.

The state’s next two-year budget, signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb, also addresses school safety, with added dollars and opportunities through the secured school grant fund, which is managed by the state Department of Homeland Security and provides matching grants to pay for structural updates to buildings and entrances.

Lawmakers increased the fund from $14 million per fiscal year to $19 million, or $38 million total over the biennium.

“Obviously, sometimes it’s never enough no matter how much you get, and we are cognizant of that,” McCormick said. “But we are pleased to see those monies going up, and we are pleased to see that other schools are being held accountable.”

Alongside the funding increase, all schools will now have to complete a threat assessment by July 1, 2021, to apply for secured school safety grants. The legislature also lowered the matching requirement, allowing schools with smaller populations and budgets to benefit, and will encourage greater participation by accredited private schools and charter schools.

While McCormick said she is pleased with this development, she also noted the funds may dry up faster than anticipated as more schools become eligible to receive grants.

“The issue becomes we have a little bigger pot of money and a lot more schools applying for those dollars,” McCormick said.

The matching grant system is based largely on school population. According to the IDHS website, grants will be matched according to the following table:

  • Schools with up to 500 students can:
    • Receive up to $35,000 in grants at a 25 percent match,
    • Receive up to $50,000 in grants at a 50 percent match,
    • Or receive up to $100,000 in grants at a 100 percent match.
  • Schools with 501 to 1,000 students can:
    • Receive up to $50,000 in grants at a 50 percent match,
    • Or receive up to $100,000 in grants at a 100 percent match.
  • Schools with more than 1,000 students or a coalition of schools can:
    • Receive up to $100,000 at a 100 percent match.

While there is time left to review how these new policies will affect Indiana schools, McCormick said her department’s mission is to help students learn in a secure environment. That obligation, she said, existed well before high-profile mass shootings tore into school communities.

“Urgency is set 356 days a year, 24/7,” McCormick said. “As a department, we take that as we’re going to inspect you, we’re going to respect you, but we’re also going to expect a lot out of you.”

FOOTNOTE:  Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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