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Safety has been a buzzword for school districts in recent years — with local threats, high school shootings throughout the country, increases in federal and state funding, and a statewide task force dedicated to exploring root causes of violence.

Under pressure from parents and politicians, York County schools — not unlike many others nationally — have responded with cash for security infrastructure and staff.

But with higher spending on security and limited government funding offered compared to extensive needs, district programming could suffer in the long term as districts' fund balances diminish.

Central York School District is paying more than $500,000 annually — not including a one-time fee of $260,000 in 2017-18 to upgrade all security systems. That's an expense that didn't exist five years ago. 

Those new costs included spending on guidance or mental health positions — a social worker, full time therapy counselor and elementary guidance counselor, totaling $240,000.

“Our mission is to teach kids," said York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams. "The reality is, we’re tasked with doing much more than that.”

School districts across the country have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars  hardening security, while some argue the money should be put toward mental health supports and others question whether amplified safety measures really prevent violence.

More: State Senate backs bill to expand armed school security options

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Only about 40% of students and parents surveyed nationally had high confidence that the student's school has sufficient security against a shooting, according to a 2019 survey by Education Next, a scholarly journal examining school reform.

But a March Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center poll showed 67% of adults think schools are less safe than 20 years ago while only 9% put "a great deal" of the blame on the schools themselves.

York County school officials admit safety spending is high, though some say recommended or required changes reflect things their districts were already doing.

School safety Act 44 requirements have led some districts, such as West York Area and Central York, to hire a safety and security coordinator for more than $100,000 each, including benefits. 

And there's the added pressure of many school districts across the state not getting any state assistance from Act 44 competitive grants.

More: Statewide report shows Pennsylvania districts struggling under mandated costs

All districts received $25,000 for a viable application, but West York Area Superintendent Todd Davies said his district received none of the $200,000 it requested in the competitive portion of the grant, and he's not the only one.

The state's safety and security committee told schools In January that it would only be able to fund about 13% of original requested amounts. 

Only five of the county's 16 districts, plus the Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12 and York Academy Regional Charter School, received competitive grant money. 

“It really has us scratching our heads and saying, 'we have a tremendous need here,'” Davies said.

Central also did not receive a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that it applied for and lost out on two state Safe Schools Targeted Grants totaling $45,000 for programs and equipment.

“You have to demonstrate and clearly show need within the district, and quite frankly we’re doing a lot,” said Ryan Billet, assistant to the superintendent for administration, at a recent board meeting. 

Southern York County, York City and Dallastown Area school districts each received Safe Schools grants for the 2018-19 school year.

But schools are not shirking responsibilities for implementing safety changes, with or without the funding, because they're necessary, officials said.

Though local districts are not hurting from the price tag yet, the cost of school safety improvements could have an effect on academic programs in the future.

Davies said West York Area has been able to use its fund balance for needed updates, but there will come a time it can no longer do that, so he hopes some decisions made now will last a long time.

The state did not increase its $60 million school safety allocation in the 2019-20 budget, despite so many school entities not getting what they needed the previous year.

More: State budget could be better, say York County educators

Safety has always been a necessity, school officials said. The current climate just made those needs more visible.

Though there has been an escalation in recent years, there have always been shootings, said Dover Area district spokesman Brad Perkins, citing a list from education resource K12academics.com, which shows the first mass shooting with student victims in the U.S. dates back to 1891.

There was a sharp increase in gun violence in schools in the late 1980s to early 1990s, with 55 deaths in 1992-93. In the 2000s, the high was 38 deaths in 2006-7, and there were just five in 2009-10 — the most recent data listed.

But what has changed is coverage of violence, Perkins said, with 24-hour news cycles and social media — circulating school bullying incidents that used to be forgotten more easily and creating a higher risk of misinformation because districts are no longer the first to know.

And there's no denying the national climate "isn’t the same as it was 10-15 years ago,” Davies said.

In 2018, there were 35 deaths from school shootings — 27 of which were from the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, according to Education Week.

“Someone once said to me 'school shootings are low frequency and high impact,'” said Central York spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig, yet they are happening more and more.

The focus in addressing safety and security has also shifted to mental health. Trauma-informed learning was incorporated into state funding for 2019-20, and legislation recently referred to the state Education Committee would improve the number of students per psychologists, counselors and social workers per student.

More: School safety task force co-chair: York districts set bar for tackling mental health issues

West York spends about $900,000 on its behavioral and trauma-informed Laurel Life classrooms annually, and South Eastern Superintendent Nathan Van Deusen said trauma would be a focus in the district's learning.

Several districts, including Central York and Dover Area, also focus on social emotional learning. York Suburban will incorporate these tools into its middle school program this year.

All in all, safety as a priority is not going away, school officials said. It's a concern that remains relevant, as there will always be something new to address as the world changes.

“This is the new normal,” said Dover Area Superintendent Tracy Krum. “I don’t see society changing back to 40 years ago.”

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