First school safety grants stir controversy

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THE first school-safety grants from a $100 million fund approved by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature don't provide enough mental health training and subsidize church-run schools, critics say.

State Department of Justice (DOJ) records show that, of 750 applications for safety grants submitted by individual schools and school districts, 200 totaling $16.5 million have been approved so far.

Initial grants ranged from $993,033 for the Madison School District to $5,625 for the North Lake School District.

HUNDREDS of other applications - including requests for $277,231 from the Beloit School District and for $79,119 from the Beloit Turner District - are pending. Our Lady of Assumption Grade School applied for $75,176 and Rock County Christian School got a grant of $39,951.

Walker and legislators set aside $100 million after school shootings, including the Feb. 14 rampage in Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17.

Although Democratic legislators demanded tougher gun purchase and possession laws, Walker and Republican legislators instead set aside $100 million to make schools safer and provide mental health training for school faculty.

DOJ, run by Attorney General Brad Schimel, approves school-safety grants. A Republican campaigning for a second term on Nov. 6, Schimel said DOJ is "moving fast" to make schools safer.

BUT two Democrats - one running for governor and one who wants Schimel's job - say the $100 million should pay for more mental health programs.

Specifically, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is running for governor, said more money should be used for:

• Community/school mental health grants: Evers said school district administrators asked for $8 million to pay for more mental health services for students, but only $3.2 million is available.

• Hiring school social workers: Only $3 million was budgeted to meet needs that total $14 million, Evers said.

"Use your authority" as attorney general to fund these programs, Evers challenged Schimel.

Responding, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremonos said, "Mental health training has been the cornerstone of DOJ's grant program . and will continue to be."

KOREMONOS noted that school districts, to qualify for a grant, must either have had or will have all teachers, aides, counselors and administrators undergo three hours of specialized mental health training by the end of the next school year.

Koremonos added:

"This first phase of the grant program is bringing up Wisconsin schools to an important baseline security level.

"In the upcoming school year, front doors will be locked, entryway glass will be reinforced, school classrooms will be locked, cameras and communication devices will be installed, and schools will have defined visitor protocols."

Evers "interjected" his run for governor into the school safety issue, Koremonos added.

JOSH Kaul, the Democrat running against Schimel on Nov. 6, also challenged Schimel to use more of the $100 million for mental health programs.

"Recent efforts to make our schoolS safer are a first step but they are just that," Kaul said in a statement. "We should be working to make schools safer by providing additional mental health programs."

Kaul "does not understand how the law works or how grant programs are operated," Koremonos said. The Legislature - and not the attorney general - budgets money for specific grants, Kormenos added.

DOJ has approved dozens of safety grants from church-run schools, and applications from hundreds more are pending. More than 80 applications came from schools or school districts whose name starts with "St." or "saint."

But "taxpayer money should not be given via grants to private religious schools," said Annie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

SHE added: "Money is fungible and if public grants are given to religious schools for building improvements, that frees up money that would otherwise have been spent in this manner for more explicitly religious use."

Private school advocates say a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Lutheran school in Missouri to get shredded playground tires from a government agency mean its legal to use state tax funds to make Wisconsin private schools safer.

But, Gaylor said, the Missouri case involved a different issue.

"Here, the state is funding improvements to buildings that are used for religious instruction and worship - something the Supreme Court has never allowed. Churches and private schools are responsible for such improvements, not taxpayers."

In a WisconsinEye interview, Schimel defended safety grants going to private schools.

"We're not sanctioning that you're Catholic, Lutheran or Jewish - that has nothing to do with it," Schimel said.

"You're a school recognized by the state Department of Public Instruction, therefore you qualify."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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