Will U.S. School Safety Research Get The Axe?

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Photo by Tim Sutherland via Flickr

Federal help for anti-crime programs largely escaped President Trump’s budget cutting when his first annual spending plan was issued last week.

One exception was a major research effort on school violence: a Comprehensive School Safety Initiative launched by former President Barack Obama and Congress in 2014 as a follow-up to the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., in which 26 students and staff members were killed.

Congress voted to spend $75 million annually for school safety research, a large sum that far exceeded the entire $40 million budget for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which oversees most federally funded research on all aspects of crime and justice.

Tucked away in Trump’s $4.1 trillion budget that was sent to Capitol Hill on Tuesday was a note that the White House was calling for a $54.8 million cut in school safety research, which would not end the program but would reduce it sharply.

Because there was no explanation for the cut in the budget documents. The Crime Report asked DOJ why it was seeking to reduce the allocation.

The department’s Office of Justice Programs, which gives out the research grants, declared that DOJ “is committed to improving school safety.” It noted that the school safety program had received about $300 million over three years, which has funded “an extensive amount of research that has yet to inform future efforts.”

While that research is ongoing, DOJ said it is “is focusing on other direct efforts to reduce violent crime and increase officer safety.”

The department essentially was suggesting that it is not worth investing large new sums in more research until the original work was completed.

Asked what the project has achieved so far, NIJ was initially not able to provide a summary.

In a report to Congress in 2015, the agency said it “anticipates that these projects will produce many practical and scientific products to improve knowledge of school safety, including a comprehensive school safety framework that can be applied in K-12 school districts across the nation.”

NIJ said many of the research efforts it funded would take three to five years to finish.

On its website, NIJ described results of two studies done with the initial allocation of funds in 2014. In one of them, the Rand Corp. made a number of recommendations, including that “technology developers should turn their focus to the general area of communications, including devising low-cost ways to allow teachers to have direct, layered, two-way communication with a central command and control system.”

Along with a summary from Johns Hopkins University of existing school safety technology, the two reports concluded that the “recent increase in the use of technology has not been accompanied by rigorous research into its effectiveness,” NIJ said.

Another of the many projects in the research effort was $1 million given to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to survey law enforcement officers in schools “to improve information about the roles, responsibilities, and actions of local law enforcement in K-12 public schools.”

BJS said the survey results are not expected to be out until 2019.

One expert who is not impressed with the federal school safety research program is Kenneth Trump, who runs the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm.

Trump, who has worked in the school safety field for three decades and is not related to the president, charged that the Justice Department funds have been “funneled to Beltway-bandit academic research and ‘technical assistance’ companies with little-to-no benefit to the vast majority of frontline education leaders in schools across the nation.”

Kenneth Trump argued had hardly any federal money ends up giving information to local schools that helps build their security capacity and provide “models and lessons learned that can be replicated across the country.” He concludes that “more money is spent ”studying’ and ‘researching’ while little is spend ‘doing'” when it comes to school safety.”

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance, a group formed by the nation’s two largest organizations of academic researchers in the field, monitors federal spending on anti-crime research.

Nancy La Vigne of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, who heads the alliance, contended that, “The net funding for justice research across the department should not be reduced, even if a substantial amount has already been devoted to school safety. There are other critical criminal justice and law enforcement research issues that need to be addressed.”

If Congress chooses to reduce funds for school safety studies, which “disproportionately dwarf other critical justice research priorities,” the alliance believes that it should reallocate the funds for crime and justice research in other areas, La Vigne said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.

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