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Wisconsin AG announces temporary funding that will help keep school safety office open

State DOJ is reallocating federal pandemic relief funds to keep services running

AG Josh Kaul is seen at a press conference with a red light from a camera in the corner.
Attorney General Josh Kaul speaks Wednesday, March 1, 2023, at the Milwaukee Crime Lab in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin’s Office of School Safety is using temporary pandemic relief funds to help continue services after state lawmakers voted to cut funding for the program aimed at preventing violence in schools.

Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Wednesday the Wisconsin Department of Justice reallocated $1.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to extend operations for the office, which opened in 2018 under bipartisan support. The Office of School Safety includes a statewide threat reporting tipline, provides training, has blueprints of school layouts and distributes safety grants to Wisconsin schools.

“We’re committed to doing everything we can to keep our kids safe by preventing tragedy, and that’s exactly what these funds will help us continue to do,” Kaul said in a statement.

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Earlier this year, Kaul asked for more than $2.2 million in state funding for the office. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed spending $1 million for the office, but in June, the Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee rejected both of those proposals and declined to allocate any additional state funds.

According to the DOJ, the money being reallocated to fund the office was originally awarded for outsourcing testing of certain types of evidence at the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories. But no vendors were available for that evidence, according to a statement.

“With these funds, we’re going to be able to keep our current operations going through the end of 2024, which means that we’ve got more time to try to work with the Legislature to find a solution, and in the meantime, continue the work of the office,” Kaul said in an email. “It remains critical that the legislature act in the current Legislative session, so these life-saving programs don’t end up being gutted at the end of 2024.”

The Office of School Safety was created during the tenure of former Gov. Scott Walker shortly after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The office has developed and maintained critical incident response teams for every region of Wisconsin. It also runs a hotline, called Speak Up, Speak Out, which has fielded more than 7,000 reports of bullying, suicidal thoughts, sexual abuse, mental health crises and school threats since its inception.

According to the DOJ, the call line, which was launched in 2020, has received tips from 68 of the 72 counties in the state. Kaul said the tipline has also received over 100 tips about potential planned school attacks.

“If even one of those situations would have resulted in a school attack, that alone makes this a very worthwhile investment,” Kaul said.

The office will receive $556,500 in the next two years from the state. In a June statement, Finance Co-Chair Mark Born, R- Beaver Dam, described the approved funding level as sufficient.

“The Joint Committee on Finance continued funding the Office of School Safety at current levels, to continue performing the core functions of the Office,” the statement said. “The committee cannot backfill the expansion of government that occurred in nearly every agency due to one-time federal money, and this Office is no different.”

A spokesperson for Born didn’t respond to a reporter’s request for a comment on the temporary funding.

Trish Kilpin, the director of the office, said she’s concerned about future funding for the office.

“We have been very worried about stopping doing what we know works to keep our schools safe,” she said.

Kilpin also said she hopes a solution for consistent funding will soon occur at the state level.

“Our children in Wisconsin deserve that,” she said. “They deserve to have safe schools.”