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Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen addresses the house

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen addresses the house in 2017 at the state Capitol.

Montana will apply for money from new federal school safety grants, but there's no guarantee the state will get funding.

The application process for funding from the STOP School Violence Act — which President Donald Trump signed in March as part of a larger funding bill and after a school shooting is Parkland, Florida  — is "pretty competitive," according to Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier. 

Montana will compete with states with a population of less than 5 million — about 25 states — for eight grants of up to $500,000 each for "school violence prevention and mental health training."

If Montana wins a grant, money will likely go toward mental health programs and teacher training, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen told legislators Thursday. 

The STOP act provides $75 million for the current fiscal year and $100 million per year for nine years after that to fund things like threat reporting systems and mental health initiatives. The bill was heralded as a significant step toward improving school safety; in a recent press release, Montana's Republican Sen. Steve Daines, one of 43 co-sponsors on the bill, said it would "help prevent future tragedies by stopping violence before it happens."

However, that money comes at the expense of funding that was previously allocated for a research and implementation program for school safety initiatives. 

The STOP Act doesn't allow money to be used on arming teachers or firearms training for educators. President Donald Trump has supported the idea, while other legislators — like Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee — have said that should be up to states.

Montana OPI is still deciding whether or not to apply for a grant for "violence threat assessment and technology reporting," according to Klapmeier. Montana would compete with the same pool of states for six grants in that category.

Arntzen said that the Office of Public Instruction could partner with the Attorney General's office to implement the grants. Klapmeier said that OPI is trying to avoid multiple grant applications from the state given the competitive process. 

OPI staff in the health and safety division have discussed how the grant could be implemented, though planning is early, Klapmeier said. 

It's likely that additional coursework on school safety and mental health would be offered on the Teacher Learning Hub, an online portal for teacher training. The state would also provide more resources to existing on-the-ground training initiatives, like the Montana Behavioral Initiative, an evidence-based system of emotionally and socially supporting students at school through positive reinforcement that's used at schools throughout the state.

Grants are also offered to school districts, but Klapmeier said that only Montana's largest schools would have the resources to complete the grant application process. And if they did, they face national competition for only about a dozen grants in each category that Montana schools would fit into. 

Tribes may have the best odds of getting a grant; six grants are offered in the mental health category, and five grants are offered in the threat assessment category, each worth up to $100,000. 

An advantage to competitive grants is that they provide more substantial sums for significant projects; if $100 million trickled down to every school in the country, the sums likely wouldn't be large enough to fund significant programs. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.