AG Josh Kaul advocates for funding for the Office of School Safety in the 2023-25 budget. (Screenshot via WisEye)
State leaders, educators and other stakeholders are making a final push to persuade Republican lawmakers to fully fund the Office of School Safety (OSS) ahead of expected floor sessions later this week.
“Without the funding, in the months ahead we’re going to have to have some really difficult conversations with schools around the state about the programs that will be lost,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul at a press conference Monday. “Schools are going to have to make challenging decisions and potentially scramble to figure out how they’re going to replace those programs and whether they can afford to replace those programs.”
The office, which is housed within the state Department of Justice (DOJ), works to promote safe school environments by providing K-12 schools with resources to improve security measures and train staff on handling traumatic events. The office provides training to schools related to crisis prevention and response, allocates grants for safety enhancements, threat assessment training and mental health training and runs a 24/7 tip line.
Kaul said the current budget, which was approved by the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee last week and is expected to be voted on by the full Legislature this week, would “effectively dismantle” the office.
The office employs 16 people, however, 12 of those positions are currently funded using $1.8 million in federal pandemic relief aid. That money will run out before 2024.
The DOJ originally requested more than $2.2 million in state funds and 16 positions for the office. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers included seven positions and about $1 million in his initial budget proposal.
The JFC ultimately decided not to include an increase in state funds for the office in the budget it approved several weeks ago, leaving the department with $556,500 and 3.8 positions for the OSS. The office’s 24/7 tip line is staffed by nine people alone, Kaul said.
Following the committee’s approval of the DOJ budget, co-chair Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said in a statement to WPR that 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.”
Kaul said the problem isn’t “affordability,” and that the OSS “can be funded for the next two years for less than one-tenth of 1% of our state’s budget surplus.”
Trish Kilpin, the director of the OSS, said the current level of funding is not enough for the office to continue all of its work. One of those resources, the Speak Up, Speak Out hotline, gives students a place to anonymously report safety concerns, such as bullying, drug use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and threats of gun violence. It has received over 7,000 reports since launching in September 2020, half of which were reported during the 2022-23 school year.
“SUSO allows us to learn early on when people are being maltreated or when they are upset, so we can intervene early and prevent that child from progressing on to that pathway of violence,” Kilpin said.
“Prioritizing saving money over the safety of our children is simply wrong,” Kilpin said. “Our children deserve to have safe schools and we need to make sure that that happens.”
Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay), a former public school teacher, told the Wisconsin Examiner that she isn’t sure why the office isn’t receiving funding, especially as it’s been a bipartisan issue since the office was created. The office was started by a 2018 law signed under Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“My [Republican] colleagues are always talking about how they want to make schools more safe,” Andraca said. “They took the gun laws out of the budget. Now they’re taking the Office of School Safety out of the budget.”
Andraca noted that advocates have emphasized the mental health support that schools were receiving through the office.
“A lot of mental health care was funded through that office,” Andraca said. “They are always saying, ‘mental health, mental health’ — when it comes to tragedies that happen in schools, this is where that funding comes from.”
Bonnie Scholz, principal of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha said grant money from the offices allowed the school to provide mental health screenings and immediate intervention therapies as well as reach out to the students and families of students and teachers who were affected by the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy.
“As an administrator, it is extremely helpful to have expert advice and expert knowledge coming to the table when helping to assess the actual threat of a student,” Scholz said. “There are so many things that can threaten schools in this day and age. It’s frankly kind of surprising that we wouldn’t consider the Office of School Safety one of the most important offices that you could have in state government right now.”
Kaul said if money isn’t included, the department will be open to applying for grants to help continue the work. However, he added that the office needs long-term funding, and the state budget would be the most logical and straightforward way to keep the office going.
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