For school officials in districts serving Chandler, creating safer schools means more than an armed guard or strategically placed wrought-iron fencing.

Officials say it is collaboration among adults, maintaining a safe space for students to talk about their feelings, and making sure each child feels a connection to the school that truly makes a campus more safe for students and for the community.

“I think we’ve seen an uptick in the need for students’ emotional wellbeing being addressed,” said Brenda Vargas, director of counseling and social services for Chandler USD. “Whether we want to address it or not, it’s there.”

CUSD, Mesa Public Schools, Kyrene School District and Tempe Union High School District all applied for the most recent round of school safety grants from the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona State Legislature, which included social workers and counselors, as the funding previously only applied to school resource officers.

The grant program earmarked $20 million in funding to go toward counselors, social workers and school resource officers—known as SROs, in addition to the previous $12 million that had been allocated for SROs for the past several years. An SRO is a trained police officer stationed on a school campus or across multiple school campuses in a district.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said the state received requests from about 900 schools statewide. The need, she said, was about $97 million—more than triple the amount of total funding available.

CUSD applied for 23 grants; Mesa Public Schools applied for 38 grants; Kyrene School District applied for 14; and Tempe Union High School District applied for seven, according to officials in each of the districts. Each application represents a staff member—an SRO, counselor or social worker—that a school site within the district feels it needs.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, position requests totaled over 1,100, with requests for school counselors comprising roughly 40% of the total requests; 34% of requests were for a school-based social worker; and about 26% were for a school resource officer. Many applicants requested a combination of positions, including some part-time positions.

Officials say the need for more staffing is huge across districts statewide. Vargas said the more trained social workers, counselors and SROs on a campus, the more likely it is that a student will feel he or she has a “touchpoint”—an adult that can help him or her get access to the services he or she may need or just be a kind, listening ear. In order to increase the number of touchpoints, Vargas said, districts need additional funding.

“Twenty million dollars is clearly not enough,” Hoffman said at an October Chandler Chamber of Commerce event. An announcement on the grant award winners is expected in early December.

Addressing students’ mental health

Vargas, whose position was created just over a year ago in the district, said CUSD has placed an even stronger emphasis in the last year on suicide prevention, social emotional learning, coping skills and other mental health resources that social workers, counselors and teachers can provide.

“It’s a different generation; they are faced with different challenges,” Vargas said. “Students cannot receive instruction unless they are in a place where they feel accepted and safe, where they can really physically and mentally receive what is being given to them.”

Vargas said of the grants the district applied for 10 social worker positions for the elementary school level, where there are currently no full-time social workers. There is one counselor at every elementary school, two to three counselors at the junior high schools and about eight counselors at the high school campuses. There is also at least one social worker at each high school campus, Vargas said.

“We have really pushed the student wellness initiative because it’s not just about suicide, which the East Valley has been greatly impacted by; it’s really about the wellbeing of students all around—physical, mental and emotional,” Vargas said, noting that lessons and resources are aimed at elementary, middle and high school students. “In order to support that mental health aspect, that’s what the schools were looking for in a social worker.”

Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement for Mesa Public Schools, said the district applied for 21 counselors at 21 campuses out of the district’s 84. Mesa is the largest district in the state.

Garcia said the 21 school sites were selected based on data points, including discipline and other behavioral data.

“Typically healthy minds, healthy bodies and healthy spirits are going to be safe for our campuses. Usually when we see people who are committing acts of violence, one of those things is not healthy,” Garcia said. “Taking that preventative approach is a huge step in the right direction. When people commit violence against others or themselves, there is pain or suffering they can’t cope with themselves.”

Kyrene officials said the district reallocated funding to add 14 school counselors, ensuring all the district elementary schools had a counselor on staff.

Katey McPherson, a Chandler resident, education consultant and mental health advocate, said the number of social workers and counselors East Valley districts applied for is encouraging.

“I hope it will mean more touchpoint personnel,” McPherson said. “I think what school are reporting is they want more personnel available to triage the situation, which hopefully results in more positive outcomes.”

McPherson said improving the suicide rates in the East Valley among teens and young children and improving school safety both start with working on the emotional wellbeing of kids.

“For me, it’s about working from the inside out,” McPherson said. “It’s great if you have bulletproof glass and an SRO, but really if you think of school safety as it relates to school shooting, it’s the inside of the student that needs triage. A lot of resources and money have been spent on logistical and tactical [solutions], but the reality is students who are harming themselves and others are not feeling well on the inside.”

It is likely that many districts will not get funding for all the positions, or any of the positions, they requested in this round of grant funding, Hoffman said. Her office is working with Gov. Doug Ducey to expand funding for the grants to meet the needs of the state’s school districts.

Creating a positive school climate

Chandler police officer Stephen Dieu starts each day at Summit Academy in the Mesa Public Schools District by walking around and talking with students as they eat breakfast. He interacts with them as they head to class, throughout the day as things come up and after school as they leave campus.

“My role is a prevention role,” Dieu said. “One of the philosophies of the program is to avoid criminalizing juvenile behavior. It’s a huge emphasis. It’s kind of what sets us apart from just being a cop on campus. Understanding the power of those relationships can impact youth now and in the future.”

The grant program by which SROs are funded requires the officers go through specific training on best practices. Officers are also required to spend 180 hours in the classroom teaching students what is called law-related education and training. According to the state department of education, the goal of the education is to prepare students for “responsible citizenship” and teaches them about the law and the legal system.

Dieu said a large portion of his job is to collaborate with administrators, counselors and other school personnel when issues arise on campus or with a particular student.

Mesa applied for 17 total SROs in the latest round of grants; 13 of those positions would be renewals, and four would be new.

Tanya Smith, director of school safety and security in CUSD, said the district applied for 11 full time SRO positions. The district currently has eight full-time positions and one-part time position that would be renewals.

She said the education officers bring to the students and staff is invaluable in creating a positive school climate.

“They are important to have around; they are a good asset to the schools and are an important deterrent effect on criminals,” Smith said. “And they are positive role models for students.”