Massachusetts officials, bracing for unthinkable school shootings that could roil communities across the commonwealth much in the mold of the Uvalde tragedy, unveiled a $40 million plan Thursday to bolster safety and training initiatives with scant days remaining until students return to the classroom following summer break.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced he’ll soon file the spending package that encompasses matching grants for “security and communication upgrades” for K-12 public schools, as well as at colleges and universities.
Baker, without delineating individual funding allocations, said the package would also award grant funding to child care providers, help school districts create anonymous tip lines for reporting possible threats, support a statewide “Say Something” campaign, and create a comprehensive school safety website.
“It’s incumbent upon us to do all that we can to provide safe classrooms and schools for our children to learn, grow and succeed, and for adults to feel comfortable,” Baker during a Thursday morning press conference at the Massachusetts State. “We look forward to sharing more details about this proposal shortly (and) working with our colleagues in the Legislature to get it done and then put the dollars to work in the field across the commonwealth.”
Beacon Hill lawmakers concluded their formal legislative earlier this month. It’s still possible to advance a hefty piece of legislation during ongoing informal sessions, though a single dissenting vote could doom its passage.
While Baker acknowledged it took the administration “a while” to formulate a safety spending plan in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting that claimed 21 lives in May, he stressed the Massachusetts Legislature “will be interested” in this new proposal. Legislative action could happen “sometime in October,” Baker predicted.
The governor’s safety plan also comes as lawmakers remain acutely committed to tackling worsening mental and behavioral health among students as a result of COVID-19, plus problems that predate the pandemic.
The governor said the new funding requests — with a heightened focus on emergency response and active shooter trainings — are meant to build upon existing safety initiatives at Massachusetts schools. Recent investments, for example, included more than $9 million to over 180 school districts to upgrade security measures and $7 million to improve mental health supports.
“We will work very quickly to get these resources out the door,” Baker said of his administration’s latest proposal, which will rely heavily on the Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) program. That training is already utilized at state-run police and fire training academies.
“We certainly believe that Uvalde made it crystal clear that this is something that everybody should be focused on and doing more,” Baker said. “I do believe that these ASHER trainings — which are for all intents and purposes, what I would describe as the gold standard at this point — are going to be the baseline for how all of this training works going forward. And we believe that we should do as much of it as we possibly can.”
In a novel approach, the administration wants to strengthen emergency preparedness among early childhood care providers, too, said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. That includes funding for “multi-hazard emergency” training that is standardized at child care and early education centers throughout Massachusetts.
“While their classrooms or buildings might look different than the K-12 schools, it is important that early child care programs have just as comprehensive safety and security infrastructures to protect young children so that they can learn and play safely,” Polito said.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley called for continuous collaboration between first responders and school officials throughout the year — not just in September — to ensure “safe and healthy environments” for students, educators and families. Those meetings should be tethered to incidents like bullying, in addition to emergencies, Riley said.
“All of these individuals want students to be safe and ready to learn,” Riley said at the press conference. “And students, and families, and educators are counting on all of us to work together.”