Safe and Drug-Free Schools State Grants on the Chopping Block

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Advocates for substance abuse and violence prevention are trying to stop elimination of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) state grants, which last year awarded nearly $300 million to governors and state and local education agencies for drug and violence prevention efforts.

The proposal to do away with the state grants portion of SDFSC was included in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2010 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Both the full House and Senate Appropriations Committee agreed in summer deliberations to nix the program, with Senate lawmakers saying in the report on the labor, health and human services and education spending bill that they agree with the president that "the program spreads funding too thinly at the local level to support high-quality interventions in schools that need the most help."

That type of thinking is "short-sighted," said Diane Landsberg, executive director for the Non Violence Project, USA in Coral Gables, Fla., which stands to lose about $56,000 from the state grant portion allocated to Gov. Charlie Crist's office.

Landsberg's annual budget is about $800,000, so the cut wouldn't kill her entire program. Still, she said, while lawmakers might see the state grants money as "chump change" in light of multi-billion-dollar bailouts for banks and car companies, "they're wrong" to say the money isn't having an impact.

With the SDFSC grant, Landsberg - whose Non Violence Project has won several awards - was able to fund two coordinators to run mentoring, life skills and violence prevention programs at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, in impoverished Liberty City, where the majority of youths qualify for free lunch. She said the program offers mentoring for 35 youths and a weekly club attended by another 50, along with regular summer activities, including a recent barbeque with Red Cross-provided swimming lessons and a formal restaurant outing where kids learned table etiquette and other life skills.

These kids "become really the leaders of the school," she said, and "they go out with the information that they've gotten" and mentor others on staying drug free and avoiding violence. To have to tell them the program is over on Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2009, would "be a shame," she said. Instead, she'll try to fill the gap from other sources.

While the full House and the Senate Appropriations panel passed measures to cut the SDFSC state grants, both would increase the national component of the program, which supports ED-run discretionary programs to combat drug use, drinking and violence. The House would increase that program by nearly $55 million in fiscal 2010 to $195 million while the Senate panel voted to boost the account to almost $225 million for the federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Given the widespread agreement on Capitol Hill and in the administration to end the state grants, advocates - including people like Landsberg and national groups like the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare and Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) - are likely to have a tough time getting the money restored.