Third in a three-part series.
For the last several months, the NAFC School Board and Administration have been leading a community conversation regarding student and staff safety. The focus has been on “what can be done?” This conversation has been challenging, diverse, and at-times rewarding. We have met with parents, civic leaders, mental health agencies, first responders, public policing forces, etc. As a result of these conversations, the Trustees have decided to place a public question on the upcoming May ballot asking the community to enhance school safety measures on behalf of all of the staff and children attending our schools.
The safety plan on the ballot will consist of two primary areas of school safety improvement. If approved, the district would 1) enhance the physical conditions of its buildings by hardening and protecting the structures of school property (buses, buildings, cameras, technology, perimeter improvements, etc.) and 2) increase preventive social and emotional mental health services. If approved, the Board would improve current mental wellness initiatives for our students while simultaneously making our facilities stronger and our school communities safer.
SROs: If approved, the Board would increase the number of School Resource Officers (SRO) within the district. At present, NAFCS employs 6 uniformed officers and if the referendum passes, this number will increase to 8 or 9 officers. This will provide more protection for more students. This would include more routine support for our elementary schools. Additionally, the plan would create an “office of school safety.” This office would be responsible for coordinating and planning all logistics related to implementing, maintaining, and training of all safety systems, plans and related protocols. A school safety office would improve the coordination and response time between various support agencies and improve communication protocols for parents and loved ones in a time of need.
A second and separate focus of the enhanced safety plan will center on the “human touch.” In 2019, the Indiana General Assembly made it clear it wants public schools to provide more emotional and mental wellness programing to the student population (but funded locally). The new law specifically allows schools to use referendum resources to pay for “student programs to address mental illness, addiction, anger management, bullying and school violence.” These programming desires perfectly represent the over-arching philosophy which is now anchored in the center of the NAFCS safety referendum.
All of us know that within every high-profile man-made safety event, someone knew something, saw something, heard something or had a clue / suspicion in advance. It is possible that some of these tragedies could have been avoided if more social and emotional services were available to assist students, parents, teachers and staff. The modern day school experience is busy and fast. But every student occasionally needs extra support during traumatic or trying times. The safety referendum would become a tremendously valuable resource for ALL students — from those who have an occasional bad day (or incident) and also for those who have existing or extenuating issues which require more attention and focus.
In November of 2018, the community of Noblesville, Indiana experienced tragedy when a 13-year student shot and injured a fellow student and his teacher. As a result, the Indiana General Assembly wanted to “do something” to assist local schools to improve student and staff safety. So, they simply “allowed” local communities to decide if they want to “do something” by using their own money to better protect their kids. Thus, local communities now have the option of asking taxpayers if they are willing to improve local school safety. The bottom line has become — if a community wants more resources for their student and staff safety it can have them, but the costs remain a local responsibility. (For deeper discussion, see Part #2.)
The NAFCS proposed plan would bump the school property tax levy by 8.5 cents. For a “typical” homestead assessed with a value of $100,000, this levy would require an additional $2.25 per month. If approved, the referendum would last for the following 8 years and then expire.
After 8 years, a number of different outcomes could occur. It is possible that societal issues could change for the better. It is also possible that our nation’s mental health needs will be taken more seriously on the national or state level. It is also possible that the plight of local school safety could become viewed by the Indiana General Assembly as a priority for all children of our state (as opposed to only those who are willing to pay for it locally). However, if the safety issue remains the sole burden of local consideration, a different School Board and a different community will decide the priority of that future day. If approved, the 2021 approved levy will expire in 2029, so a future community would consider whether to replace or reject all or part of the added safety measures via a follow-up referendum. If it is not renewed, the preventive services for those future students would cease; however, all physical (proactive) improvements (capital) would remain.
The referendum process is a terrible process to decide something as vitally important as student safety for any community. This NAFCS decision will not be made by the School Board, Superintendent, parents, teachers, Senators, Representatives, students, or community. It will be made only by voters who vote. Unfortunately, this is the only option given to the community. As unfair as the referendum process has become — it is the only viable option to take a proactive action on behalf of our kids.
Strong schools build strong and successful communities. Likewise, one significant safety incident or tragedy can become impossible for any community to shake. School officials believe that more safety and support systems for all of the students in 2021 and beyond is a fundamentally important question for all of our registered voters to consider. We encourage all of you to fully engage in the larger societal safety discussion and then, ultimately, support your students, staff and community in this upcoming May election. Please vote “yes” to enhance the safety systems and opportunities for your 11,600 NAFCS students and 1,500 staff.
Strong schools equal strong communities.