One of the most terrifying things John Calvert knows he has to do is teach Kansas police officers just how long four minutes last.
Calvert, director of the Kansas State Department of Education’s Safe and Secure Schools Unit, and specialist Jim Green regularly travel to the state’s school districts to work with them on their crisis management plans.
While those plans cover a wide gamut of crises — think not just tornadoes but dam failures, landslides and even train derailments — the most prominent is how to respond to an active shooter.
Calvert meets with school officials, but the drills he helps them run usually also involve local law enforcement, with the goal of reducing any confusion and making sure command structures are clear in the event of the unthinkable.
He asks the police officers how quick they think they could get to a school in an emergency — three-and-a-half to four minutes, usually — and he holds them at the school doors for that long.
“It’s as scared as I’ve ever been — telling cops, ‘Don’t go in,’ and to wait,” Calvert said. “Because this is what it’s going to feel like. We train and we do these kinds of drills so that everyone is on the same page, and there are no questions.”
Calvert’s work underscores what Kansas schools are already doing on the issues.
But the shooting deaths of 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the death of 10 Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo a week-and-a-half earlier, has again put school safety front and center.
As Congress debates gun control and school safety, Kansas politicians and educators are split on what policies would protect public schools.
$5M in grants will help Kansas schools update, beef up school security
Speaking to the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday, Calvert, a former school resource officer for Jackson County school districts, gave an annual update on the education department’s Safe and Secure Schools Unit.
As part of the state education budget, his unit this year received $5 million to distribute as grants to Kansas school districts looking to upgrade or improve their security measures and systems.
That funding, at a $1-to-$1 match, is intended to help schools fortify their doors, entryways, windows, cameras and security systems. Schools may also use the funding to create new school resource officer positions, although those positions must be entirely new. Calvert said schools are also concerned about using one-time grant monies to create any permanent positions.
So far, 139 school districts have submitted applications for about $10 million in grant requests, and Calvert and his team will work through the end of June to cull those requests down to $5 million worth for the state education board to approve in July.
He emphasized, though, that the most effective school shooting prevention measures aren’t necessarily tied to money or physical items.
“In too many instances, there’s a large number of people who knew or thought an incident might occur, or they had seen or heard something,” Calvert said. “Having a positive relationship with our students, so that they know that they can go to a coach, a teacher, principal, counselor, SRO — whoever it might be, that student knows there’s a trusted adult they can reach out to who is going to help.”
Kansas gubernatorial candidates square off on school safety
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Republican frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, announced a public safety plan June 7.
Schmidt proposes doubling the current $5 million in state funding for the safe and secure schools grant program. He wants to let the funds be used, in part, to hire more school resource officers.
Schmidt also suggests expanding mental health resources and backs allowing federal COVID-19 aid to be used for school safety, among other proposals.
“Kansas kids deserve to feel safe in our communities and especially in our schools,” Schmidt said. “The Legislature has already led the way with commonsense, proven programs to make schools safer. We need leadership to keep us moving forward.”
Six days after Schmidt announced his policy positions, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told The Capital-Journal she hasn’t looked at her opponent’s ideas.
“I’m really more following what’s going on in Congress because that’s a real thing and something that actually could be enacted,” Kelly said.
Republicans, including Schmidt, have been critical of Kelly’s decision not to propose funding for the state’s Safe and Secure Schools grant program in her last two budget proposals.
The program was eventually funded by the Legislature and continued in both 2021 and 2022, with the funds expanded to allow districts to use the money to hire school resource officers.
Kelly pointed out the bipartisan proposal in the U.S. Senate includes additional funding for school safety.
While she said school safety is a federal and a state issue, she didn’t offer any of her own policy proposals.
“I think there are other parts of the whole gun issue that need to be addressed, and I’m watching closely what the Senate’s doing,” she said.
Congress nears deal on gun safety as Roger Marshall offers own plan
U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall has pushed a proposal of his own, mirroring a pillar of Schmidt’s package, to allow for COVID-19 relief funds to be used to implement school safety technology.
In a media call with reporters, Marshall framed it as a broadly agreeable way of ensuring security, saying the money could be used for everything from artificial intelligence to track threats to more conventional items, like security cameras.
While research shows taking steps to “harden” schools has not necessarily helped curb school shootings, the design of some Kansas schools makes them particularly open, Calvert said.
Many schools were built in the 1950s with the goal of welcoming community members into the space — a noble goal but one that feels outdated in 2022.
“I remember being in school, and it wasn’t a big deal to see grandma and grandpa come eat lunch with their kids,” he said. “We’ve taken those same buildings, and we’ve locked them down to create that secured entrance into our infrastructure.”
A different gun safety package has emerged in recent days, hammered out by a bipartisan team of negotiators on Sunday.
The proposals appear to have enough support to clear the 60-vote threshold needed for passage in the U.S. Senate. They include increased review for gun purchases by individuals under the age of 21, greater protections for victims of domestic abuse and more funding for mental health services.
Marshall told reporters he wouldn’t vote for legislation that infringed upon the Second Amendment, though he said he would need to individually review legislation to see what met that standard.
“Any type of threats on the Second Amendment. I don’t know how that solves the problem,” he said.
Arming teachers unlikely in Kansas
Marshall said he was hesitant about any proposal to arm school personnel, as some Republicans have suggested in the wake of the Uvalde shooting.
Ultimately, he said, such decisions should be left to local school boards. But he added proper training was paramount.
“It’s easier said than done,” Marshall said. “I would, you know, push for professionals to be doing this job.”
But all three Republican candidates for attorney general told attendees at a Wichita Republican event last week that they favor allowing teachers to carry a weapon, arguing it would be a more effective deterrent.
“The threat to our kids is too significant and schools are soft targets,” Kris Kobach said, according to the Wichita Eagle. “That’s the reason why these insane killers target schools is because nobody in there has a gun.”
Local school districts would need to authorize teachers to conceal carry, effectively exempting them from federal and state restrictions on guns in school zones.
Leah Fliter, director of government relations for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said no districts in the state have done this historically, in large part because the potential liability raised eyebrows with insurance companies.
“Whether a school district would want to arm teachers would be an individual district decision,” she said. “But then there’s an additional piece there of the insurance carriers not wanting to insure people who are not law enforcement officials who are carrying a gun in a school building.”
Mental health funding a priority
Another core component of the congressional package is greater investment in helping students access behavioral health screening and treatment at school.
Experts caution against blaming mental health as the primary or sole driver of mass shootings.
But there is broad agreement that more needs to be done to connect students with mental health support. For several years, Kansas has embarked on a pilot program to connect community mental health centers with school staff in an effort to more easily identify and help students who may be struggling with their mental health.
Not every school district participates in the program, though it has grown to 55 school districts in its fourth year of existence. Over $10 million in funding was again added in the budget for the program.
Challenges still remain, Fliter acknowledged.
“There’s still not enough staff to address the issues that are showing up in schools through student behavior,” she said.
But Calvert stressed that the issue of school safety is multifaceted and ultimately requires more than just educators, mental health professionals or law enforcement to take an active role.
“When we talk about active assailants, we have to bring a whole community approach. It’s not just something going on in our schools — it’s something going on across our entire country,” Calvert said. “Our schools are just a microcosm of the nation, so to keep schools safe, it takes everybody. It takes students, staff members, parent, grandparents and community members.”
“We all have to work to solve the problem.”
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.