Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul is urging lawmakers to fund the state’s Office of School Safety, saying the federal money that’s kept the office going the past couple years is about to dry up.
The office, which is run by Kaul’s state Department of Justice, operates a statewide threat reporting tipline and helps districts follow best practices for securing schools.
When it was created five years ago, it received broad, bipartisan support in the Legislature. It was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who introduced the plan about a month after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
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Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was among those killed in Parkland, joined Kaul at a state Capitol news conference Tuesday to promote the continued funding of the office. He said Florida had spent hundreds of millions on school safety following the deadly shooting.
“Thank God in Wisconsin you haven’t had a horrible tragedy in a school, but we know based on decades of research that the next school mass murder is already out there,” Schachter said. “Now is the time to fully fund the Office of School Safety. Because there’s nothing more important than making sure that our children are safe in their schools.”
Five years ago, the office was tasked with administering a new $100 million state grant program for Wisconsin schools. Since then, the office has had to rely more on federal funding, including from the American Recovery Plan Act, known as ARPA.
“But we’re now at a critical decision point for the future of the Office of School Safety,” said Kaul, a Democrat. “The funding that we’ve relied on will run out likely around the end of this year.”
Kaul’s budget request asked for $2.2 million in state funding to continue the office, which would fund 16 state positions.
“It’s not something where you have a one-time fix and school safety is solved,” Kaul said. “We need to continue having an office that focuses on school safety so that we can keep adopting best practices, we can keep working collaboratively with schools and we can keep our kids in Wisconsin as safe as they can.”
Evers’ budget proposal would spend around $1 million, or about half of what Kaul requested, and funds seven positions.
A key part of Wisconsin’s Office of School Safety is what’s known as the “Speak Up, Speak Out Resource Center,” which the DOJ describes as “a one-stop resource for threat reporting, threat assessment consultation, critical incident response, and general school safety guidance.”
Trish Kilpin, who has led the office for the past year, said the tipline is staffed 24 hours a day by trained analysts prepared to talk with the person providing the tip.
“Sometimes people choose not to dialogue, and they want to just remain confidential. They make the tip, and they leave the portal,” Kiplin said. “But most times, we’re engaging and having a dialogue, validating that person’s concern, finding out the best way to help every tip that we receive.”
Kiplin said tips have covered everything from concerns over child abuse to mental health and bullying at school. She said the tipline gives the state an opportunity to intervene at an early stage and prevent tragedies from occurring.
Kaul said the office once received a tip from a student who was concerned that another student might harm themselves. He said the DOJ made contact with the student’s school and someone checked on the student’s welfare.
“That same student, a little while later, contacted our office again,” Kaul said. “And said, ‘I’m not feeling well again. And I’m reaching out to you because I know this works because when my friend contacted your office to get help, I got the help that I needed.’”
It’s unclear whether Republicans who run the Legislature will support either the $2.2 million Kaul requested or the roughly $1 million Evers’ budget would provide.
While the state is facing a projected $7.1 billion budget surplus, GOP leaders have downplayed the size of the reserves, arguing they’re built in large part on one-time money that won’t be there to pay for new programs the state creates this year.
“We will be beginning budget discussions from base and building from there,” said Michael Pyritz, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.
Beginning from “base” means lawmakers will start with the existing budget rather working from than the budget proposal Evers introduced to lawmakers in February.
Also on Tuesday, GOP lawmakers announced four public hearings on the budget to be held throughout the month of April. They’re likely to begin voting on pieces of the two-year spending plan in May.
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