School safety

How Tennessee’s largest district plans to spend new money on school safety

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

Before Tennessee offered grants for school districts to improve student safety following February’s deadly school shooting in Florida, education officials in Memphis were already forming plans to use local money to ramp up security.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Gerald Darling

Shelby County Schools earlier this year set aside $2 million in local dollars to add 30 armed school resource officers and about $860,000 for more cameras and card access in and around school buildings.

But after a statewide review of school safety needs, the district is getting another $3.5 million to bolster security — $700,000 in recurring funds and $2.8 million in a one-time grant. The district plans to funnel that money to security system upgrades and more training and equipment for the new school resource officers.

The result: a massive infusion of resources into a position that district officials say has been essential for improving safety and climate in many schools, even with a budget that has been flat at $13 million for several years. For the first time, every school in the district will have a school resource officer for at least part of the week, who is trained in how to manage misconduct in a way that both protects students and teachers while defusing tense situations with students who face many stresses.

“The investment we’re getting now will only enhance what we’re already doing,” said Gerald Darling, the district’s chief of student services. “We appreciate it. But we don’t consider it a deal maker for us, getting this money.”

State education officials announced details of the new state dollars last week, seven months after Gov. Bill Haslam asked all districts to assess how prepared they are to protect students, and where they might be vulnerable in an emergency.

The review came amid an escalation of concerns about school safety following a February shooting where a student killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Lawmakers across the country proposed various responses, from restricting the types of guns available for purchase to arming teachers.

A bill in Tennessee to train some teachers to wield guns in classrooms fell flat. Instead, lawmakers agreed to distribute $35 million in new funds to districts with plans to bolster safety.


For more on school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know and learn how hiring more officers could have unintended consequences for students of color.


To qualify, districts had three weeks to complete a safety review of all schools with a law enforcement officer present.

For Shelby County Schools, that meant quickly organizing staff and pairing them with law enforcement officers to comb through more than 200 schools. That included dozens of charter schools the district authorizes.

In the end, the assessment concluded within the time window, and while district officials did not want to share details about the review’s findings so security gaps would not be exposed, Darling said they “didn’t find many vulnerabilities.” Every school in the district will benefit from the state grant, he said.

Other districts across Tennessee plan to hire more school counselors and child psychologists, buy better door locks and shatter-resistant glass, and improve visitor screening procedures, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. Statewide, local governments paid to add 213 new school resource officers.

“Students learn best in an environment where they feel safe and protected, so it is our responsibility to ensure our schools are secure, and this funding allows us to do just that,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a statement.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.