AHWATUKEE (3TV/CBS 5) -- Deadly school shootings in recent years have forced campuses across the nation to majorly overhaul their plans.

In May, Gov. Doug Ducey announced $20 million for school safety grants, expanding the program that typically funds school resource officers to now include requests for counselors and social workers.

[WATCH: Which AZ schools will get funding from the safety grant?]

A staggering 896 schools applied for the grant, including Desert Vista High in Ahwatukee.

"With over 3,100 students, you can imagine there are some things that happen on a campus our size," said principal, Mike Deignan.

He announced his first choice on the application is to continue funding a police officer on campus.


"This is kind of a no-brainer in my mind. That, at the very least, on this level for safety and security in a building, we have to have a school resource officer," explains Deignan.

He says Officer Nicole, who sits close to the front office doors, is highly-visible on campus and a critical part of their team.

Deignan says in a perfect world, he would have counselors and social workers too, but he knows there's not enough money.

"It can be frustrating when you have to make those hard choices on what can you spend limited dollars on," said Deignan.

The Department of Education says nearly 75% of the schools that applied for the grant last month asked for counselors or social workers. That does not come as a surprise to a counselor in Mesa.

"They desperately need help. Their ratios are huge," explains Britney Griffith, a member of the Arizona School Counselors Association. She says the student-to-counselor ratio of more than 900 to 1 in Arizona caught a lot of people off guard.

"When that came out, people were like, 'Whoa, what are kids missing out on?'" Griffith said.

She said those numbers are near twice the national average and more than three times what her organization recommends at 250 kids to one counselor.

"I was at two schools up until last year. So, I had over 1,100 students at the elementary school level," said Griffith.

Now she's at one school and says addressing students' social and emotional needs is crucial, now more than ever.

"We hear that there's a rise in behavioral health disorders in younger children. Obviously, school shootings and suicides are on the rise as well," said Griffith.

She says the hardest part of her job is talking to kids about problems she can't fix. She does believe schools are safer when kids know how to cope.

"If we can teach students ways to deal with conflict better to teach students to deal with their emotions in a more effective manner, then they're less likely to have those at-risk behaviors or safety concerns," said Deignan.

That is a big part of the goal with this $20 million school safety grant.

The problem is, if every application was approved for the more than 1,100 positions requested, it would take more than $97 million to cover the cost.

"This really shows a need for more funding for education," said Callie Kozlack, the Associate Superintendent of Policy and Government Relations for the Department of Education.

She says her team's been crunching a ton of numbers and setting up a rubric to figure out in a fair manner which of the nearly 900 schools has the greatest need for the resources and will be awarded grant money.

"We said we would look at ratios, potential number of students to resource, whether a school has an existing resource," said Kozlak.

She also said the department, along with the help of the Arizona Department of Administration, will also look at emergency certified teachers' data from the Office of Civil Rights and school report cards.

"There's more than the letter grade, so to speak. There's other information in there about graduation rates, about chronic absenteeism," Kozlack said.

She says all of the data compiled will be valuable information moving forward, providing a better picture across the state about the need, the preference in positions and salary schedules laid out in the tens of thousands of pages of applications her office is reviewing.

"It really shows that this is a fundamental need for schools, and I think in order to meet that need, we are gonna need to think about what is the appropriate funding and support coming from the state," Kozlack said.

At Desert Vista High, principal Deignan understands the math. Only a fraction of schools that apply will get the money. He's hopeful funding for Officer Nicole, his SRO, remains a constant.

"If we were to lose that, we would have to go back to the drawing board on how we really could provide this level of safety for this community. And frankly, that is not a discussion I would want to have in this community at a school this large," said Deignan.

Kozlak says the goal is to announce the list of approved applications at the next State Board of Education meeting on December 13.

Heather Moore anchors the Primetime News at 8, 9 and 10 weeknights on 3TV. She regularly reports on issues important to Valley residents, so be sure to watch 3TV weeknights.

Copyright 2019 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.



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