HANCOCK COUNTY — In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012 that left dozens dead, Indiana politicians poured $20 million into safety grants made available to community schools.
But in approving the state budget this year, lawmakers decimated the program, cutting funding to $7 million and leaving some school officials to pick and choose which safety measures to invest in.
While some Hancock County school administrators say the cuts are unlikely to interfere with their district’s spending, others fear it could dry up funding for a variety of expenses, from alarm and surveillance systems to the salaries for school security officers.
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“As with anything else, when there’s less money available, there are fewer things you can do,” said Dave Pfaff, principal for Eastern Hancock High School and Middle School. “This cut puts a pinch on the schools; and now, we’ll have to try to do more things with fewer resources.”
Pfaff said Eastern Hancock benefited tremendously from past grants, using them to pay for upgrades as simple as safety film to cover the glass on front doorways to an advanced lightning-detection system for athletics fields.
But Pfaff said the biggest gain from the grants is the school safety officer the district hired this year to protect its three schools. The officer’s duties include patrolling the hallway and monitoring traffic, but his presence is the most important element, Pfaff said.
“Wherever you see our kids, you’ll see our (officer),” he said. “He’s there to put everyone’s mind at ease.”
The district plans to continue its school police officer program, but the cuts have added a degree of uncertainty to those plans, Pfaff said.
Gary Stanley, a Hancock County sheriff’s deputy who works for Southern Hancock schools when he’s off duty, said his responsibilities are more varied than some might think. Officers are there to deter trouble and address it when it arises. But they also serve as role models to students and a friendly face when they need someone to talk to.
“We wear several hats,” he said. “I want students to feel like they can approach me and pull me aside to tell me about their vacation or how things are going with them.”
Occasionally, Stanley said, he encounters a student who’s intimidated or confused by his presence.
“I’ve cleared up a lot of misconceptions about why I’m here and just about law enforcement in general,” he said. “For various reasons, some kids put up a barrier to law enforcement and don’t want anything to do with us, but we try to circumvent that, and it seems to work.”
That benefit is immeasurable, Stanley said.
Steve Satterly, safety director for Southern Hancock School Corp., echoed Pfaff’s concerns about the cuts.
Over the past three years, the grants the district received went toward the installation of security cameras for all elementary schools, heightened security measures near all buildings’ front entrances and the salaries for several school police officers, he said.
“This coming year, we’re preparing for less,” Satterly said. “There are always improvements and upgrades that need to be made to the infrastructure. But after losing that money we were hoping to get, we probably won’t be able to look into those types of upgrades.”
Shane Robbins, Mt. Vernon School Corp. superintendent, said he’ll need to shuffle funding around to continue paying for the district’s police officers, but it derails his plans to upgrade security cameras.
Christy Hilton, assistant superintendent for Greenfield-Central School Corp., said the district used grant money for surveillance systems, recording equipment and other one-time expenses. The district built funding in to support its school safety officers, Hilton said, and officials weren’t depending on the safety grants to fund those salaries.
Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, who represents portions of Hancock and Madison counties, said he supported funding for safety grants.
“Safety is essential for a learning environment,” he said. “We like to think of our schools as a safe haven for our young people.”
Cherry said he believes most districts will be able to cope with the cuts.
“The schools have some flexibility to their spending,” he said. “They can pull from funding for other resources if they need to.”
Still, Satterly said, the reduction complicates matters for his district.
“Shrinking the overall pot of money available to schools statewide has added a lot of questions to our planning that I really wouldn’t like to have,” he said.