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Wisconsin AG accuses Republicans of gutting school safety office after funding requests are denied

Democrat Josh Kaul says the future of a tip line is in jeopardy as federal funds end

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 attorney general says an Office of School Safety will be forced to make severe cutbacks after Republican lawmakers denied requests for additional funding to replace federal money that’s running out.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker created the office in 2018 in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The duties of that office, which are outlined in state law, include distributing safety grants, providing training, crafting recommendations and collecting blueprints of school layouts.

Since then, the office’s role has expanded, and it’s currently being bolstered by federal funding, including $1.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that’s set to end before 2024.

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As of this spring, the office employed 16 people, with 12 of those positions funded by time-limited federal dollars. In his budget request, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul asked for more than $2.2 million total for the office, which would have allowed it to keep up staffing at 16 positions.

In his proposal, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had a more modest request at nearly $1 million for the office.

But, on Thursday, the Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee rejected both of those proposals and declined to allocate any additional state funding.

“Key services would be gutted by this budget and the effect would be that schools around the state of Wisconsin would have fewer resources to draw upon in keeping our kids safe,” Kaul said in an interview Friday afternoon. “And students in Wisconsin schools would be less safe.”

Kaul says it’s likely the office will be forced to eliminate its 24/7 hotline, which fielded more than 3,800 tips over the course of a year about issues including threats, bullying, suicide and mental health crises.

Kaul also says the future of critical response teams could be in jeopardy. Last year, the office helped create 12 of those regional teams across the state. They’re made up of school administrators, members of law enforcement and mental health professionals, who are trained to coordinate with each other, so they can spring into action when a crisis happens.

In all, the Republican budget plan maintains over half a million dollars total for the Office of School Safety, enough for about four full-time positions.

“(That’s) just four people for the entire state of Wisconsin to work on school safety issues,” Kaul said, noting that the office has to carry out certain duties outlined in state law. “And so our ability to do anything beyond those very limited statutory obligations, like collecting documents from schools around the state, would be very limited.”

In a statement, however, 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.”

The Joint Finance Committee also approved $2.5 million in grant funding this week, so that schools can create maps that will be available to law enforcement during an emergency.