North Dakota schools are leveraging an influx of federal dollars to improve school safety and address behavioral health concerns.

This year, North Dakota school districts received about $3.7 million in federal funding — a 75 percent increase — that some districts are using for additional security measures, including installing security cameras and hiring school resource officers, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

A majority of schools, however, are using the additional money for behavioral or mental health services.

The federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act includes a flexible block grant program under Title IV. Money flows to districts through a formula, and districts can use their Title IV funding for a variety of programs that support a well-rounded education and student health and safety, as well as enhance the use of technology in learning.

Days after the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, Congress boosted the amount of Title IV funds for schools by about $700 million.

This year, Grand Forks Public Schools got about $400,000 in Title IV funds. Some of that money was used to hire a licensed addiction counselor.

Jody Thompson, associate superintendent for elementary education, said administrators, school social workers and counselors, parents and community agencies met earlier this year to discuss how the Title IV funding should be used.

"We had some focus groups with some of our parents and clearly the No. 1 priority was student mental health," he said.

The district used $83,000 to hire an addiction counselor to work with high school and middle school students this year, at no cost to them or their families.

"Probably like every other community in the country, we're dealing with substance abuse amongst our high school students and unfortunately with even some of our middle school students," Thompson said.

The district also will use the money to hire four additional social workers and "behavior facilitators," one full-time employee and two-part time employees. Thomspon said behavior facilitators work with staff on strategies to deal with students who have several behavior issues and show parents strategies they can use at home.

"We have kids and families that need significant support, and right now we don't have the budget to do this," Thompson said. "So this funding was a godsend to help us deal with some of those issues."

Neighboring district Fargo Public Schools received about $502,000 in Title IV funds this year, according to associate superintendent Bob Grosz. He said the district used the money to establish Positive Intervention and Support System, or PBIS, which seeks to create a uniform set of behavioral expectations for schools.

FPS hired nine "positive behavior interventionists" and "positive behavior technicians" this year to work at eight of the district's elementary schools.

"Just like other districts across North Dakota and the nation, there is a need for a Positive Behavior Intervention System," Grosz said. "We were finding that some students are needing that instruction, or that help, and some of the skills when it comes to behavior and self-regulation."

Minot Public Schools used $12,000 in Title IV funding this year to contract with a local clinical psychologist, who will work primarily with students at Souris River Campus, the district's alternative high school, one day a week, according to Tracey Lawson, assistant superintendent.

Other schools opted to use federal funds for additional security measures. Minto Public Schools, a northeast district with 270 students last year, used about $16,000 to install additional security cameras to cover blind spots in the school buildings, according to superintendent Linda Lutovsky.

Rick Jacobson, superintendent of Wahpeton Public Schools, said his district used $36,000 to fund a districtwide school resource officer. Jacobson said a SRO was hired last school year using a smaller amount of Title IV funds.

"We just felt there was a changing in our school demographic ... and with mental health issues continually rising, and just everything else, we thought it was time to bite the bullet and get an SRO on staff," he said.

School districts were required to report to the state Department of Public Instruction how they were going to spend Title IV funds. Valerie Fischer, DPI's director of safe and healthy schools, said districts also must track the effectiveness of their use of these funds.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said she's pleased schools are using the additional federal dollars to address school safety and mental health. In August, DPI and other state education groups hosted school safety listening sessions across the state.

"Behavioral and mental health is the No. 1 issue," Baesler said of what she heard at the sessions.

Baesler also formed a committee with organizations such as North Dakota United, state Highway Patrol and the state Council of Educational Leaders to review what was shared at the listening sessions.

"We met last week, and we are beginning to have conversations about the types of bills we believe may be introduced (this upcoming session) surrounding the issues of school safety," she said.

The committee will meet again next month to discuss current or potential bill drafts, she said.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)