PHOENIX — A special task force wants to expand state laws that fund school resource officers to also let districts spend grant dollars on safety hardware, including artificial intelligence to spot would-be shooters.
Mike Kurtenbach, director of school safety for the Arizona Department of Education, said there is a demand by some districts for sworn police officers in their buildings. But he said there are not enough officers available to fill that need.
Members of the School Safety Task Force are proposing ways to deal with that, including finding ways to encourage retired police officers to take the jobs.
But Kurtenbach said more is needed.
“There is a desire to expand the funding to include other needs, particularly around physical safety at school,” he said. That can include design features, like doors that automatically lock in situations with an active shooter and “ballistic film” that can be placed over existing glass that prevents it from shattering when shot, slowing down those hoping to shoot their way into a building or classroom.
That also could include metal detectors.
And then there’s technology.
“There are artificial intelligence systems out there that can detect systems before the human eye can,” Kurtenbach explained. He said things like this would provide “another tool to enhance safety.”
“Cameras are great,’’ said Kurtenbach, a former Phoenix police officer.
“But they’re only as good as somebody monitoring the cameras,’’ he said. “If you have an algorithm, if you have technology that can sense a threat, that can identify that threat beforehand, that’s a tool that everyone would agree had tremendous value because in a critical situation, seconds matter.
There is $84 million in a grant funds for school safety, with lawmakers directing that the priority go to put more officers in more schools.
But the issue isn’t just money. There is nothing in state law that allows the Department of Education to use its school safety grants to fund such equipment.
So how much more would be needed to deal with requests for equipment?
“That’s going to be a big number,” said Kurtenbach. “There’s no doubt about that.”
And state schools chief Tom Horne would not say how much more he intends to seek from lawmakers.
All this stems from a shortage of sworn law enforcement officers to go around to all the schools that want one. At this point there are 138 schools that have grant funds but simply can’t find someone to hire.
The problem, said Kurtenbach, is police departments don’t have the full-time officers to spare.
“You have chiefs, you have sheriffs that are having to make very hard decisions,” he said.
“Every chief, every sheriff recognizes that their first duty is to respond to calls for service when somebody picks up a phone,” Kurtenbach said. “It’s not a funding issue. It’s finding the people to fill these positions.”
The Department of Education already is working with private agencies that arrange for off-work assignments for police officers, such as on road-construction sites, to get some of them to be willing to work in schools on their days off. But Kurtenbach said that is a short-term solution.
What might work better is finding retired officers who, with some additional training, could be designated as “school safety officers.” But he said there are legal hurdles that have to be overcome.
One of them is that there are both rules of the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System as well as the IRS that could financially penalize those who go back to work by trimming their pensions. Kurtenbach said there may be ways around that, including amending state laws that govern police pensions.
But the issue of more police officers in schools goes beyond money.
There have been complaints in some communities across the nation of what has been called a “school-to-prison’’ pipeline, with schools depending heavily on police to enforce discipline, a process that can result in arrests.
“There’s a lot of talk about if you have an officer in school that’s going to further this proverbial school-to-prison pipeline,” Kurtenbach said. But he disputes the premise, citing a report that says juvenile arrests overall are at a 40-year low.
“Officers are not inclined to slap cuffs on people and put them in jail,” he said, especially with police staffing as low as it is.
“They’re problem solvers,” Kurtenbach said. “They’re trying to find ways to create solutions to problems that exist.”
He did acknowledge, though, there’s a big difference between a police officer who has been strictly in a law-enforcement role for years and someone who would be working full time in a school and might be considered more of a counselor.
“Training is key,” he said.
But this isn’t just an issue for retired officers who might end up in schools. The task force is recommending additional training for everyone who ends up as a school resource officer on issues ranging from federal laws governing student privacy to civil rights and adolescent mental health issues.
All this will require legislation. Horne said he is lining up a lawmaker to sponsor the measure.