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Mental Health Central Topic Of Indiana School Safety Academy

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick.

Jennifer McCormick will not run for re-election as state superintendent of public instruction. The position will move from general election to assigned by the governor. (Jeanie Lindsay/IPB News)

Indiana's state schools superintendent says she's worried a $5 million a year increase in available school safety grants won't go far enough.

Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said Monday the $19 million annual funding included in the new two-year state budget will help school districts, but cast doubts on whether that was adequate to cover costs for safety equipment, school police officers and threat assessment.

"Yes, it is concern," she said. "It comes down to safety is not inexpensive and students deserve the expense of it. ... For us to pretend like it is not or try to rationalize minimal dollars doesn't seem like that it makes a whole lot of sense for a state."

McCormick spoke on the opening day of the state Department of Education's annual Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy, which the department said drew some 1,200 people from eight states.

Mental health and social-emotional learning are a central topics for the two-day training, which comes after two school shootings in Indiana last year. The training is designed to help school officials navigate "best practices" of school safety. 

Republican legislative leaders touted the funding increase included in the spending plan approved last month as helping schools improve school safety. GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb had proposed keeping the funding level at $14 million a year with his initial budget proposal submitted in January.

State officials awarded $14.3 million in grants to 388 schools around the state last year after lawmakers increased funding from the $9 million available in 2017.

Lawmakers approved program changes that lower the amount that of money smaller school districts and private schools must provide to qualify for the state grants. Schools or districts with fewer than 500 students will have to provide a 25 percent match for grants up to $35,000, with the scale sliding up to a 50 percent match for districts topping 15,000 students seeking grants up to $100,000.

Holcomb extoled those changes when he signed them into law last month, saying in a statement the package "provides access to more funding for safety equipment, facilitates partnerships with local law enforcement and requires threat assessments in our schools. This new law is key to ensuring our schools are better prepared."

McCormick says some schools will still struggle to qualify for grants because of low funding increases in recent years.

"Schools are looking for those mental health providers, are looking for more social workers, they're looking for contracts with mental health providers," McCormick says. "So those dollars are going to be gone quickly as many of the needs are continuing to increase across the state."

State lawmakers in the recent legislative session created some new options to address mental health issues, but not the comprehensive system some advocates say the state needs.

McCormick says the academy has brought in national experts as well as school leaders from Noblesville and Richmond, the cities of Indiana's two school shootings. 

The training includes sessions on social media, sex trafficking and school bus safety.

Carter Barrett contributed to this story.

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