by Ted Gest
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut at the end of 2012, Congress scrambled to do something in response to the nation’s worst school shooting.
Lacking agreement on gun control measures, lawmakers did what they do best in such situations: spend money on studying the problem.
Thus was born the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI), which aimed at throwing a large pot of federal funds to researchers to examine just about every aspect of what might lead people to commit violence against students of all ages.
The $75 million annually awarded to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) was an especially large sum for a single crime problem, more than the agency normally spends on researching every other crime issue combined. (The appropriation dropped to about $50 million this year.)
In a case of bad timing, the Trump administration on Feb. 12 asked Congress to bring the program to a halt.
The Office of Management and Budget had no way of knowing that only two days later, a teenage gunman would enter a Florida high school from which he had been expelled and kill 17 students and staff members, an event that like the Newtown, CT, shooting more than five years earlier would start a new scramble in Congress and elsewhere to find ways of preventing a repeat episode.
The question now is whether Congress will pay attention to one of the latest Trump budget-cutting moves, which was buried at the bottom of page 719 of the lengthy spending plan sent to Capitol Hill.
The answer may not be as simple as it may seem at first glance.
That is because some insiders believe it was questionable for Congress to throw so much money at one crime and safety question and expect quick results.
What has happened is that hardly any of the research commissioned as a result of Congress’ 2013 spending action has been completed. That is not surprising, given that major research projects in criminal justice and many other fields of study take several years to complete.
That fact led officials of the Trump-led Justice Department to seek a pause in the school safety research.
Asked to comment on the budget request, which was not highlighted when the DOJ budget was released, the department’s Office of Justice Programs, which includes NIJ, noted that school safety research had received a total of $275 million in the last three fiscal years but that “this program was not intended to be a permanent funding stream.”
The agency added that, “The results of currently funded projects will continue to provide evidence about what works (and what does not) in keeping our schools safe and to inform future resource decisions. Almost all CSSI-funded projects are still active and final reports have not yet been published.”
Nearly a year ago, in its first budget message to Congress, the Trump White House sought to cut back but not eliminate the school safety research program. Lawmakers rejected the request and kept it going with about $50 million.
As The Crime Report reported last spring, at the time NIJ described the results of a few studies that had been completed. In one, the Rand Corp. made several recommendations, such as that “technology developers should turn their focus to the general area of communications, including devising low-cost ways to allow teachers to have direct, layered, two-way communication with a central command and control system.”
NIJ lists the ongoing school safety research on its website, at least some of which could provide information relating to the kind of shooting that hit Parkland, Fl., this month.
For example, a grant was given to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to do several things, such as providing “a comprehensive understanding of the perpetrators of school shootings and test causal factors to assess if mass and non-mass shootings are comparable.”
Researcher Joshua Freilich said his work is not yet finished. He notes that because school crime encompasses disparate activities such as non-school related incidents such as a drug deal gone bad, workplace violence, suicide, and the intentional targeting of students and employees as happened in Florida, the John Jay project will provide “a typology of event types and their prevalence so as to provide policy makers an accurate assessment of the nature of the phenomenon.”
Examples of grants under the program last year include about $7 million to the Leidos Innovations Corporation of suburban Washington, D.C., to operate a “National Criminal Justice Technology Resource Center,” and another $7 million to the Rand Corp., with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Nebraska Department of Education “to scale-up the Good Behavior Game (GBG),” described as “an evidence-based classroom behavior management approach emphasizing positive reinforcement.”
One expert with an insight into the program is Greg Ridgeway of the University of Pennsylvania’s criminology department, who was acting NIJ director when CSSI began.
Ridgeway says that the initial $75 million provided by Congress may have been an “overinvestment” and that eliminating the program now “would undercut the progress.”
A better way to fund such research, he suggests, would be a smaller but steadier amount each year. He gave the example of research on violence against women, which has received about $4 million annually for more than two decades.
“That modest but sustained investment has resulted in a large body of research, a cadre of researchers and students studying the problem, a comprehensive understanding of the issues, and findings on what works,” he says.
Applying that idea to schools, he says that reducing the funding to about $10 million a year for seven more years would save a lot of money “while still keeping the research community engaged in figuring out what works in school safety.”
Officers of the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, which represents two major criminology organizations, issued a statement Monday saying in part, “We were surprised and troubled to see that the President’s FY 2019 Budget Request–released just two days before the Parkland shooting–did not request a continuation of this funding.”
The group’s leaders added that, “Termination of the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative would result in less research and knowledge to improve school safety in our public schools, and detract from efforts to reduce/avoid future school shootings and violence.” They noted that “one year of funding for CSSI research projects represents approximately three tenths of one percent of the cost of the proposed $25 billion US/Mexico border wall.”
Not everyone will support a liberally funded school crime research program. Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety advocate (who is not related to the president) said that the federal program should be continued “but not to the tune of the millions and millions that the Obama administration put into it.”
Kenneth Trump believes that federal funding on school safety “needs to be balanced out with programs putting resources directly into local schools.”
It is too early to say what will happen to the school safety research program now, but it is a fair bet that after the Florida school shooting, Congress will again spurn the Trump administration and keep it going, albeit at a more modest level.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report where this first appeared. The Crime Report provides comprehensive reporting and analysis of criminal justice news and research in the U.S. and abroad.
Photo from Columbine High School shooting security video, courtesy of Wikipedia