On the heels of news that the Education Department would consider if schools can use federal funds to arm teachers with guns, Congress is asking if the same block grant that could go toward firearms can also be used to purchase surveillance technologies such as security cameras and metal detectors.
Language from a Congressional Research Service (CRS) memo obtained by EdSurge shows that the Library of Congress is conducting research for Congress on whether local education agencies can use Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) funds “to purchase items related to school safety, such as metal detectors and security cameras.”
The block grant came under close examination in late August when a district in Texas asked if the funds could be used to buy firearms. The Department of Education said they would look into the possibility, The New York Times reported. Shortly after the news broke, lawmakers introduced legislation to prevent schools from using the block grant to purchase firearms.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later said that the decision would be up to states. In a response letter, DeVos said: “I have no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff under the ESEA...Congress did not authorize me or the department to make those decisions.” The letter, however, did not say if the Education Department would stop a district that wanted to use the grant to purchase guns.
As with guns, so-called “hardening” technologies are not explicitly listed in the SSAE block grant, also known as Title IV-A. The grant was created in 2015 under the Every Student Succeeds Act to provide funding for three key areas: creating safe and healthy schools, supporting a well-rounded education and increasing effective use of technology.
The memo includes a list of activities the funds can be used for, which includes spending on mental health services and counseling. But it’s unclear if metal detectors, security cameras and the like fall within the category of what could be funded to support what ESSA calls “safe and healthy schools.” A segment from the memo reads:
“The purchase of items related to school safety (e.g., metal detectors, security cameras) is not expressly included in this list, nor does any regulation, policy guidance, case or legislative history seem to address this issue. However, the above list of ‘comprehensive program or activities’ is not exclusive. First, the listed items are described as being ‘among’ other programs or activities that can be funded. Further, guidance provided by ED, which contains a different illustrative list of allowable programs and activities for safe and healthy students, provides that the list contains ‘examples of allowable activities and is not an exhaustive list.’”
For districts that receive $30,000 or more through the SSAE grant, 20 percent of the funds must be spent on safe and healthy schools programs (such as violence prevention and mental health awareness training), 20 percent must be spent on well-rounded curriculum (such as music and arts, civics or computer science), and 60 percent can be spent on all three of the funding buckets, including the effective use of technology. However there is a 15 percent cap on using the funds to buy tech hardware.
Why the cap? “Congress really wanted to ensure that districts were spending the money for instructional support and professional development, rather than going out and purchasing a lot of devices,” says Ally Bernstein, executive director of the Title IV-A Coalition. The group is made up of 60 national organizations that advocate for increased investment in the $1.1 billion SSAE grant. “We hope that the Department will implement the SSAE block grant and support the programs and services that provide direct educational benefits to students,” the group wrote in a letter to Congress last month.
When SSAE was created, Congress laid out examples of what the funds could be used for. This includes technology, accelerated learning programs and professional development around violence prevention. Title IV-A “is really meant for direct supports and services to students, and in some cases hiring staff to provide those services to students,” according to Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists.
“Every dollar that could possibly be spent on purchasing guns means a dollar less for mental-health services, or technology solutions that could assist school-based mental health professionals in identifying, assessing, and tracking treatment for students with mental health issues,” Bernstein adds.
Joseph South, chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), tells EdSurge: “We desperately need these funds for the programs for which they were intended. These are areas that have been neglected in the past.”
South previously served as the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “I don't love increasing the surveillance of our children in general,” South says. “You're never going to monitor your way out of a problem.”
The idea of using the grant to purchase guns—and to arm teachers in schools overall—has caused concern and uproar on all sides.
“Redirecting that money to arm teachers and school staff will recklessly endanger the safety of both students and educators, while robbing underserved students of the support and opportunity they deserve,” House Representative Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) said in the Times article.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), however, said that he’s “not a fan of arming teachers, but the safe schools block grant for many years has allowed states to make the decision about how to use those federal dollars to make schools safer for children.”
The Title IV-A Coalition is against using the funds for guns. “It cannot and should not [be used to purchase firearms] because it is outside the scope of what the law intended. We are working with Congress now to clarify this immediately,” says Bernstein.
Whether or not schools could use SSAE funds for cameras, metal detectors and other surveillance technologies could come down to how these hardening technologies are categorized. School construction, renovation and repair, for instance, explicitly cannot receive funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The coalition does not take an official stance on whether or not the funds should be used for surveillance technologies. But experts at nonprofits in the coalition point out there is little evidence that these tools are effective in preventing violence.
“There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but by and large the research shows that over-reliance on purely physical security measures, like surveillance cameras and metal detectors, actually makes students feel less safe,” says Vaillancourt Strobach.
“There’s no evidence we have seen that traditional school hardening technology makes schools safer,” says Kristen Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence. She says even if it were legal to use the SSAE funds for these kinds of technologies, it’s not what her organization recommends.
The Department of Education did not respond to request for comment for this article.