As the chief law enforcement officer of Eau Claire County in Wisconsin there is not much, good or bad, I haven’t witnessed first-hand or heard tell about. And though I have learned to deal with even the ugliest crimes in an even-keel manner, to this day the situations that never fail to cause me grief involve harm to children. Even more distressing is arriving on the scene of a scenario where I suspect some previous training in mental health and early-intervention techniques could have altered the outcome.
That’s why I have been so supportive of the creation of the Office of School Safety within the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Under Attorney General Brad Schimel’s leadership, this new office allocated $100 million dollars to schools across Wisconsin. These safety grants focus on physical security improvements for our school as well as advanced mental health training.
Every stakeholder involved—from educators, to social workers, to parents—will have their own praises to sing. Here, I want to share a little bit of the perspective from the law enforcement side of things, and why we think the second round of Brad Schimel’s 2018 school safety initiative will lead to stronger communities, safer school environments, and, most importantly, happier, well-rounded children.
First, $100 million may sounds like a lot of money (the second round of grant funding itself comes to approximately $48 million), but measured against the young lives this training will save, it is a remarkable return on investment. Moreover, to qualify for the grant, schools need only to agree to send 10 percent of their full-time teachers and counselors. The disruption is therefore minimal, but the payoff is big, especially as these educators train their colleagues. What results is a strengthened eco-system of prevention and protection.
Second, the training in early-intervention and mental health provided is best-in-class and centralized. The Wisconsin Department of Justice, in conjunction with a model established by the national Secret Service, will help assemble and train school safety intervention teams (SSITs). These teams will, over time, become equipped by the best professionals to assess threats and identify students in need of support. Too often I hear educators say they sensed something was off with a child, but they didn’t have the tools or support to adequately respond. And to round this all out, schools will continue to receive improvement of “hard” infrastructure, like cameras and emergency protocols.
Finally, the coordination aspect, from the view of a law enforcement officer, is a dream-come-true. Too often what we discover during any after-action report of mass school incidents, is that our proverbial right hands were not talking to our lefts. Children, whose teachers may have identified as having behavioral issues, may also be known by law enforcement for any variety of reasons, including house calls necessitated by turbulence at home. If a SSIT had been put in place, law enforcement, educators and mental health professionals would already be working in real time, ready to intervene before anything gets out of hand.
The recurring discussions about school safety, early prevention and the mental health issues facing some of our children are not pleasant. Some folks would rather not face reality head-on, and instead propose yet another series of discussions. So, when grant opportunities that involve the partnership of the entire community, like the one spearheaded by Attorney General Brad Schimel, law enforcement jumps at the opportunity to get to work. I’m glad to have a willing and capable partner in Brad Schimel to meet the challenge of school safety together.
Ron Cramer is the Eau Claire County Sheriff.