Task force recommends expanding potential uses of Arizona school safety grant

Nick Sullivan
Arizona Republic
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As tens of millions of school safety grant dollars remain available due to a lack of staff, a task force commissioned by the Arizona Department of Education on Thursday recommended that legislators create more avenues to spend the funds. 

State law says the School Safety Program, which awards $80 million in competitive grants to school districts and charter schools in three-year cycles, can only apply its funds to four positions: school resource officers, juvenile probation officers, school counselors or social workers. School resource officers are police officers assigned full-time to schools.

An El Mirage school resource officer participates in an active shooter training exercise inside a classroom at West Point Elementary School in Surprise on June 21, 2023.

But, about one-third of the more than 870 grant recipients this cycle could not find staff to fill their desired positions, according to the education department.

"There's been a lot of discussion about, 'How do we get school resource officers in schools when there is clearly a need that outstrips the capacity to supply officers," said Michael Kurtenbach, the Arizona Department of Education's director of school safety.

If adopted by the Legislature, the task force's recommendations would open grant funding to school psychologists and school safety officers, who are off-duty police officers who work in schools on a part-time basis. Schools could also use safety grants to fund non-personnel measures, such as securing entry and exit ways, adding safety architecture like fences or investing in safety technology like artificial intelligence.

The education department has already stepped toward implementing one recommendation not yet codified in state law. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne announced in October that the department would fill some school resource officer vacancies by contracting with Off Duty Management, a company that schedules off-duty police officers for security positions, to place school safety officers on campuses that do not have a full-time police officer. 

Arizona Department of Education Director of School Safety Michael Kurtenbach and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne share recommendations on how state legislature can improve safety during the School Safety Task Force's final meeting on Thursday.

About $18.6 million in available funds for full-time officers are being repurposed for part-time school safety officers, who are paid $100 per hour in Maricopa County. School safety officers sign up for shifts as their schedules allow, meaning the officer at a given school will likely be different each day.

Kurtenbach said it is the department's understanding that it is operating within the scope of the law by repurposing school resource officer funds for school safety officers. The task force seeks to codify this use in law to remove all doubt. Kurtenbach said the education department has tried and failed to identify a similar way to fill vacant social worker and counselor positions with off-duty professionals.

Legal barriers also prevent retired officers from filling vacancies, according to Horne and Kurtenbach, who have enlisted the help of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which provides retirement benefits to public safety employees. Return-to-work statutes must be changed through legislative action for this pathway to become viable, according to Dianne McCallister, a lobbyist who works with the retirement system.

The education department is in talks with a sponsor for a desired bill to remove retiree barriers but is not yet ready to announce names or specifics.

To strengthen existing grant-funded positions, the task force also seeks a statute to require a mental health guidance manual for grant-funded social workers, counselors and potentially psychologists akin to a safety manual already required of school officers. For officers, the task force would like to see required training on education topics like privacy laws, civil rights matters and adolescent mental health.

"It's all about finding that creativity, that collaboration, and ways to meet the needs for our schools," Kurtenbach said.

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