Measures to make Arizona school buildings safer often go undone. Here’s why

A playground in Ajo, Arizona, was shut down for more than a year because of sinkholes./Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest

By Yana Kunichoff  | Arizona Republic

When Robert Dooley joined the Ajo Unified School District as superintendent two decades ago, he loved the big glass doors that let in streams of sunlight to the small district’s entryways.

Now, Dooley sees those big doors as a security risk. He’s also worried when his staff must shoo away people walking their dogs on the school playground during school hours, or strolling through the campus. And if a bigger security threat arises, he worries the district’s sole school security officer might be away on a traffic accident or other department need.

Ajo Unified School District, where more than 65% of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch this year, doesn’t have the funds to overhaul its entryways or add higher fencing around its playgrounds, as a state board recommends, Dooley said.

And it’s unlikely to get state funding to pay for them.

For years, Arizona’s school facilities oversight board has recommended school building safety measures in the case of an active shooter or other security threat but has not included them in the board’s “minimum guidelines,” which would require the state to fund them, say critics.

“If someone wanted to drive on to our campus, there is no stopping them,” Dooley said. “We don’t have the facilities, and we don’t have the money.”

Districts like Ajo scramble to find funding for security upgrades on their own, while those that are able to pass bond elections have access to extra funding.

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The tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has raised questions about school safety and what building attributes can best protect students and staff from intruders — and which Arizona schools could access those features.

This process, known as “school hardening,” involves adding security measures to school buildings and in some cases additional security staff. The concept has been controversial in recent years, particularly as student-led movements have raised concerns about how students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are impacted by a police presence at school.

But in Arizona, many of the school security issues being discussed after the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde are closely tied to larger school infrastructure issues. Districts have long struggled with building upgrades because of insufficient funding.

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