FLORENCE — In a rural area like Picacho, it could take several minutes for officers to respond to a school shooting, according to Allen Rogers.
He’s the superintendent of Picacho Elementary School District, which educates 185 students at a school located about 25 miles southeast of Casa Grande but only about 5 miles from Eloy.
Because of the school’s remote location, Rogers said, they’re particularly vulnerable if or when an emergency were to happen.
That’s why he is appreciative his district is one of eight in Pinal County that will be involved in a special training project to improve school safety.
The U.S. Justice Department announced this week it was awarding $159,738 to the Pinal County School Office’s Education Service Agency to provide training intended to prevent violence and respond to mental health crises.
Joel Villegas, director of Pinal County ESA, said staff from eight school districts will undergo training within the next year on how to mitigate conflicts and respond to emergency situations.
The school districts involved are Maricopa Unified, Eloy Elementary, Santa Cruz Valley Union High, Mammoth-San Manuel, J.O. Combs, Mary C. O’Brien, Florence Unified and Picacho Elementary.
Each district had to submit letters to Villegas’s office, explaining how it could benefit from training on school safety.
Villegas said school safety has been a big topic among local educators, especially since deadly mass shootings have dominated national news cycles in recent years.
Florida’s Broward County, where 14 students were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year, was also on the list of recipients for grants dispersed by the federal government.
President Donald Trump signed the STOP School Violence Act into law earlier this year, providing millions of dollars in federal funding for enhancing security on school campuses, boosting crisis training for students and developing anonymous school threat reporting systems.
Elizabeth Strange, first assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona, said the federal grants will support her office’s mission of keeping local schools safe from targeted attacks.
“Every child in Arizona should be able to attend school without the threat or fear of violence,” Strange said.
The grant awarded to Pinal County was one of 85 handed out to counties and districts across the country for preventing school violence and responding to mental health crises.
The training will ideally help schools better prevent bullying and teenage suicide. A string of student suicides have plagued a high school in Queen Creek over the last year.
Some schools in Pinal County don’t have guidance counselors on site, Villegas added, putting more pressure on teachers to resolve matters involving mental health.
The grant will fund the training project for three years. Villegas said the first year will be devoted to training and the subsequent years will focus on implementing concepts learned in the training and collecting data from students and staff.
School districts have also expressed wishes to collaborate more with local law enforcement, Villegas added, to make sure their plans for responding to a crisis match.
For Rogers, making sure his rural school in Picacho is safe is his No. 1 priority.
“That’s our first job,” he said.