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Alabama officials: Schools have become safer, but gaps remain

By MARY SELL and MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

Nine years ago, following the killing of 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Dwight Satterfield, assistant superintendent at Decatur City Schools, was one of a handful of educators at a school safety discussion with lawmakers at the State House.

He talked about how every second counts in a threatening situation, explained the safety drills his schools practice and discussed the need for more state funding for security.

Since then, Satterfield has been part of a state school safety council, sharing best practices and training statewide. Schools are safer now, but there are gaps, he said. Like they do after other shootings, Satterfield and others will learn all they can from last week’s mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas and try to apply some lessons here.

“But if anyone is sitting out there, whether they’re an educator, whether they’re law enforcement or whether they’re a legislator, and they say, ‘(It can’t happen) here,’ they’re fooling themselves,” Satterfield told Alabama Daily News.

Satterfield and other school leaders say security has absolutely improved since 2012 or even 2018, when the governor’s school safety council released a list of recommendations, including dedicated funding for school resource officers, a bond issue to pay for security upgrades and more mental health professionals in schools.

School safety efforts and allocations in recent years have included:

  • Allowing schools to use their Advancement and Technology money for security expenses. This year, that’s $205.7 million spread across all K-12 schools. The fund is never guaranteed and amounts vary.
  • Issuing in 2020 a $1.25 billion capital improvements bond for K-12 and higher education. Local schools’ allocations were based on enrollment and ranged from just under $1 million for the smallest system to $61 million for the largest.
  • This year requiring every school system in the state to hire mental health coordinators to identify mental health service needs within schools. Next year’s education budget includes $4.7 million for the coordinators.
  • Allowing the training and arming of teachers and administrators through the “Sentry” program established by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2018.

“Gov. Ivey has made clear that Alabama students will be focused on their school work, and that absolutely means that we must ensure their safety,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “(The SAFE Council) recommendations are largely being implemented.”

“… Alabama continues taking a proactive approach to ensure every parent can be confident in their children’s safety while learning at school.”

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said new schools are constructed with more security in mind and many existing buildings have had their entrances upgraded to “harden” them and cameras installed.

But if there is a sociopath intent on doing harm, there is no perfectly safe school environment, Mackey said.

“We know schools are more secure, but schools have dismissal and recess and ball games,” Mackey said. He said families and communities must report to authorities potentially dangerous behavior and red flags they see in individuals.

“We’ve got to find ways to prevent these shootings before they happen,” Mackey said.

In the meantime, schools practice what they’d do if a shooter comes.

No dedicated funding

Because funding streams and abilities vary, systems handle in-school law enforcement differently. Some partner with local law enforcement agencies for personnel, some hire retired law enforcement. Some have full-time officers in each school, some rotate them among multiple schools. Not all systems’ security personnel are armed.

While state leaders have freed up funds that can be used for security, it can also be used on other competing needs. The Advancement and Technology money, for example, can be used on transportation, maintenance and insurance costs.

Satterfield is still pushing for a dedicated security line item in the state education budget. In his conversations with schools, he knows security efforts can vary greatly. Some systems don’t have school resource officers or updated camera systems.

“Until we level the (funding), we are going to have gaps in safety,” he said.

Mackey said that there will always be more that could be done to make schools more secure. Security measures are local decisions and needs can vary from school to school.

Mackey said that prior to about 2018, schools were asking for money for cameras and better school door locks, but he doesn’t hear many of those requests anymore.

Gauging increases in security is difficult. Mackey said ALSDE purposely doesn’t track information on who or how many school administrators have gone through the armed sentry program Ivey created in 2018. The governor’s office and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency referred questions to Mackey’s office. Current information about the number of school resource officers in schools wasn’t available either.

School Superintendents of Alabama is currently surveying schools about their security and needs, Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth said.

Hollingsworth would like every school to have an SRO but knows not every local system can cover that cost.

“We ask a lot of our teachers, we ask a lot of our school administrators, and that’s what they need to be, teachers and school administrators,” Hollingsworth said. “And law enforcement members need to do that job. So we need those individuals with that responsibility and that training where they need to be and that’s in the school.”

More SROs, but not everywhere

Pamela Revels, president of the Alabama Association of School Resource Officers, said that many states have decreased funding for the SRO programs over the past decade, but Alabama schools have increased the number of officers in schools. She said that most law enforcement agencies in Alabama now have SROs and follow the training guidelines from the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Revels emphasized the fact that SROs aren’t just security officers for schools. Like other law enforcement, they are certified under the Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, but receive specific training to be in a school environment.

“It’s different than the old days of school resource officers when they put the guys that wanted to retire there,” said Dale Stripling, School Safety Specialist with the Alabama Department of Education. “These guys now….they’re specifically trained and specifically chosen to build relationships.”

He and Revels pointed out that the relationship building aspect helps officers spot potential problems, since the students often trust them enough to come to them with concerns.

Revels said the issue with getting SROs placed in all Alabama schools boils down to funding, but she believes it’s a worthwhile investment.

“If you can find the funding and get that right person that makes a difference, it’s a piece of the school environment that you will not want to let go,” she said.

Even with these major improvements, according to Revels, “with school safety, you’re never done.”

Stripling said that a lot of potential disasters have been averted because of the smooth-running system Alabama has put in place to deal with these threats. He still emphasizes the need though for constant training and continuous updating of that training.

The gun issue

From 2013 to 2017 there were nine incidents of gunfire at Alabama schools, but from 2018 to 2022, that number more than doubled to 21 gunfire incidents.

Susan Kirkpatrick and Paula Wilson, co-leaders of Alabama’s chapter of Moms Demand Action, which advocates for stricter gun laws, said school safety improvements in the past ten years are not enough to keep Alabama’s children safe.

“Whether or not schools are safer, we know that children are not safer from guns than they were ten years ago: guns are now the leading cause of death among children and teens,” the women said in a written statement.

They advocate for several gun control measures, including an extreme risk law, which would allow law enforcement, family, or even educators to petition a court to deny someone access to a gun when they present a threat to themselves or others. Though some states have extreme risk laws, there is no federal one.

Such a “red flag” law was introduced in the Alabama Legislature in 2019 by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, but it did not pass.

Moms Demand Action also advocates for raising the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21.

“Data shows that 18-to-20 year olds commit gun homicides at a rate four times higher than adults 21 and older do,” the Moms’ statement said.

The group also wants the state to require background checks on all firearm sales. Currently, the state only requires background checks when the gun is sold by a licensed dealer.

But almost any measure to restrict access to guns would face an uphill battle in deeply conservative Alabama.

Asked recently on Alabama Public Television’s Capital Journal about public policy on gun reforms, including potential red flag laws, Alabama Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said the Legislature could see bills on the matter, but stopped short of saying whether they’d progress.

Scofield said that state leaders “need to make sure we are funding (school safety and SROs) appropriately.”

He said he’d like to know if the sentry program is working as intended.

Meanwhile, the state has made significant investments recently in mental health care, including new crisis centers around the state for people needing acute care.

“We’re making very serious investments in our mental health facilities … I think Alabama is going to continue to fund mental health in significant ways and change the way we deliver those services to those who need it.”

Mackey encouraged concerned parents to reach out to their local schools with specific questions.

“And if you see something, say something,” he said.

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