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State safety center seeks safer schools

A small center within the Department of Public Safety aims to ease school safety fears.

“The terrible shooting attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. has once again thrust the safety of our children while they’re at school to the top of minds,” Joe Kelly told the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee at an informational hearing Tuesday. Kelly is director of the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Within that division resides the Minnesota School Safety Center.

Formerly the federally funded Safe Learners Program, the center was re-established by the Legislature in 2013.

Funded by a $405,000 annual appropriation, it aims to provide a safe and secure environment for public, private, tribal and charter K-12 schools by helping them effectively respond to an incident and recover after.

“We touch about 200 different school districts or school organizations per year,” said Center Director Randy Johnson. Citing Department of Education data, he said there are 477 non-public schools, 328 public school districts and about 157 charter schools in Minnesota.

“Our mission is full spectrum; it’s all hazards planning — both natural and man-made,” Johnson said. “Our main role is to be linking resources between the schools and the community and also the governmental entities that help contribute to a safe school environment.”

This is done, in part, through school safety assessments (about 80-90 per year), violent intruder response training, crisis communications training, de-escalation strategies and reviewing access and visitor controls. Training can be tailored to a school’s needs.

The center is non-regulatory, which, Johnson said, has resulted in schools being more receptive to having candid conversations.

“We look for best answers which are low-cost, no-cost if at all possible, and then help assist them in connecting with other resources that can help them with different technologies that would be very helpful,” Johnson said.

The three-person center is manned by people with backgrounds in facility assessment, fire service, law enforcement and schools. An emergency planning coordinator position is vacant, yet no request has been turned away.

“We’re subject-matter experts in some ways, but we’re also subject-matter learners who pick up a lot of good information on the different work we are doing throughout the state and we employ these best practices to our current training,” Johnson said.

He said approximately 1,300 individuals, including about 75 licensed school resource officers, receive approximately 6,500 contact hours per year. It is estimated Minnesota has 315 full-or part-time school resource officers.

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