New TCO assessment tool now available

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has announced the availability of a new online tool to help school leaders calculate the total cost of ownership (TCO) of their technology investments. This free, vendor-neutral resource was developed for CoSN by Gartner Inc., a leading research and advisory firm that helps businesses understand technology, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Visitors who click through to the tool’s web site can review an article entitled “Learn Why Total Cost of Ownership Matters” and read case studies that Gartner prepared after working with four school districts of varying sizes across the country. After registering on the site, users also can calculate their own estimated TCO by inputting data about their school technology programs. The tool is most useful as a benchmark for school leaders to assess the current costs of managing their technology and how these costs might change in the future. eMail support is available for those with questions about using the tool.

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Schools turn to eBay to unload surplus items

Faced with tight budgets, some innovative school districts and other public institutions are turning to an unusual source to raise some extra money: the online auction house eBay Inc., the world’s largest auctioneer.

Unloading everything from vacant buildings to old buses and even fire trucks, schools and other municipalities have found that the internet greatly increases the number of potential buyers who can bid on used equipment and—in some cases—is more cost-effective than holding a local charity auction.

“Either individuals associated with schools or individuals employed by schools have told us that eBay is great way to make money,” said Kevin Pursglove, senior director of communications for the company.

In South Dakota, officials at the Elm Valley School District turned to eBay after local attempts to sell the district’s 81-year-old Barnard School produced only one bid.

The idea was to reach potential buyers outside of the immediate market, said district technology director Cindy Rall, who helped facilitate the process.

The school eventually was posted on eBay under a 10-day listing, she said. It sold in less.

While the school received at least a dozen bids from potential buyers nationwide, the winning bid of $49,000 went to a New Mexico man, who has yet to announce his plans for the building.

Randy Barondeau, superintendent of Elm Valley School District, said the deal includes the 14,054-square-foot school building and a 2,585-square-foot multipurpose building. He said the purchase price is the property’s appraised value.

Originally, Rall said the district had hoped to make a substantial profit off of the sale. But the high bid of $63,200 fell through after a Texas man’s plans to use the school as a bed and breakfast or technology-type business never materialized.

In January 2002, district residents voted to close Barnard School, where students in grades K-6 attended classes. The district’s students in grades K-12 now attend school in the city of Frederick.

Rall said the district was forced to abandon the building because it did not meet handicapped access requirements, among other things. “We had a beautiful building, it just didn’t fit our needs,” she said. “Down the road it was going to be a liability for us.”

eBay is an option the district will consider in the future, Rall said. Aside from a few minor difficulties associated with the closing, the process was altogether easier than selling the building through a traditional auction, she said, adding, “Other than responding to eMails, it really was less work. It’s definitely an option to look at.”

Elm Valley isn’t the only district that has used eBay to sell off used equipment. Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools began selling surplus school buses on eBay last year as a way to unload retired buses and raise extra cash.

During the regular school year, 200 buses transport Fayette County students to and from school.

The surplus buses were bought new in 1988-89 for $28,000 each and were retired after they completed the mandated 12-year life cycle. The buses each hold 65 passengers (40 adults) and have up to 200,000 miles on them.

John Kiser, Fayette County’s director of transportation, said the buses are in “pretty good shape.” The surplus buses have been sold for bids as low as $1,500 and as high as $2,800. One bus is offered a week at a time, Kiser said, and bidding starts at $1,000.

Other municipalities, too, are cashing in on eBay.

In Blairstown, Iowa, fire department officials sold an old fire truck on eBay.

The fire department sold the 1979 grass and field firefighting truck for $7,850 to Coyote Fire, from Colorado, a company that fights fires in national parks.

Assistant Fire Chief Randy Macku said the truck was listed on the online auction site with a starting bid of $2,500.

Fire Chief Steve Metz said about 3,000 people looked at the truck online and 75 bids were received. “We were very pleased with the results,” Metz said.

eBay’s Pursglove said items posted to the online auction site are made available to 69 million potential buyers worldwide.

Links:

eBay Inc.
http://www.ebay.com

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States grapple with virtual school legislation

Recent developments in state courts and legislatures across the nation have produced mixed results for virtual education. Proponents of virtual schools—in which students receive instruction entirely online—contend the programs open new doors for students, but skeptics say they siphon tax dollars away from public schools and into the hands of for-profit companies.

At least 14 states have a state-sanctioned, state-level virtual school either planned or in place, according to “Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues,” a 2001 report commissioned by the Distance Learning Resource Network. The states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia.

In states that haven’t developed a statewide online learning program, however, the debate over virtual schooling continues.

In Texas, legislators last month struck down a House bill (H.B. 1554) that would have approved the implementation of virtual charter schools in that state. Under the bill, every student enrolled in a charter cyber school would have been entitled to an internet-connected computer and a printer, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The narrow 75-66 defeat came as a surprise to bill sponsor and House Public Education Committee Chair Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who had expected widespread support of the legislation.

“It was a surprise that [the legislation] failed, mostly because problems with it were never expressed,” said Grusendorf aide Byron Schlomach.

Schlomach said the bill was proposed as a means to open up the educational system and increase the options available to parents, many of whom had expressed concerns that their children were stymied by traditional classroom settings.

Schlomach attributed the bill’s failure to its “broad scope,” but at least one detractor said he was more concerned with the possibility that for-profit companies would be allowed to siphon money out of the state’s already anemic education budget.

“The reality is we ought not to be in the business of supporting for-profit education,” said Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs. “Any program that takes money out of our public schools would be against our better judgment.”

Still, House legislators will get another crack at cyber education soon. The state Senate has approved a companion bill that calls for a pilot program with enrollment limited to 2,000 students. The bill would require two universities to establish the program and assume general oversight, but the legislation would allow the universities to hire private companies to provide day-to-day management.

Georgia lawmakers also are wrestling with the issue of cyber education. There, the state Senate last month voted 45-2 to establish virtual charter schools. However, the legislation was tabled in a House committee and has yet to reach the floor, where a favorable vote could send it to the governor for final approval.

Jared Thomas, an aide for bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Price, R-SS-56, said the legislation would provide additional choices for parents whose children have been slow to achieve in the classroom.

“The bill targets more non-traditional students, while making sure they still have access to the public school system,” he said. “[Sen. Price] believes in giving parents more options for their children, not less.”

Thomas could not say why the bill was tabled in the House.

Despite the indecisiveness of some state legislatures, proponents of virtual schools say they are pleased with the overall progress of the movement to date.

“Part of the reality is that this is a very difficult budget year for states to be dealing with any type of legislation,” said Barbara Dreyer, president of Connections Academy, a for-profit manager of virtual schools across the country.

Just because a piece of legislation fails the first time doesn’t mean similar bills won’t be proposed in the future, Dreyer said. Where virtual schools are concerned, it’s promising to note that lawmakers are at least considering the possibility.

“Not everyone is going to get it right away,” she said. “We want to see responsible growth, and we think that’s why some legislatures are taking their time.”

Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, which places the focus squarely on student achievement, lawmakers and school leaders are being forced in some cases to look beyond the confines of the classroom for solutions that can help all students succeed.

“All kids are not going to benefit from the same solutions,” Dreyer said. “We have to find new ways to use our resources.”

Dreyer’s company has enjoyed recent victories in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—victories she hopes will enable proponents of the virtual school movement to turn doubters around.

In Pennsylvania—a pioneer of the virtual school movement—lawmakers recently agreed to the first cyber charter school since a revision to the state’s charter school law empowered officials to approve or reject cyber school charters on a more stringent basis than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA) plans to enroll about 400 students from across the state in kindergarten through eighth grade. The program, which is aligned to state standards, will include a combination of computer-based instruction and individualized guidance from certified teaches, tailored to individual students’ needs.

The Harrisburg-based school was among five proposed cyber schools whose applications initially were rejected by the state Education Department in January because organizers failed to demonstrate sufficient community support, among other reasons, AP reported.

Department officials granted the school a three-year charter that expires June 30, 2006, and can be renewed for five years after that. CCA had to revise its application twice before it was approved. According to AP, eight online schools currently operate in Pennsylvania, but one of them—the Einstein Academy Charter School—was ordered to close in June unless it successfully appeals the revocation of its charter.

The state’s new cyber-school law was passed last year in response to complaints that existing charter school laws did not adequately address the circumstances presented by online schools, which draw students from various districts across the state—forcing the districts in which the students live to pay the tuition cost. (See “Pennsylvania seeks fix for troubled cyber schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3847.)

CCA will provide free computers and internet connections to families who need them and has agreed to pay the internet bills of families who already have online service, AP reported.

In another milestone for Connections Academy—and for virtual schooling in general—a Wisconsin judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state’s teachers union questioning the legality of Wisconsin Connections Academy, a 300-student virtual school chartered by the Appleton School District.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council complained that the company would reap huge profits from state money granted for per-pupil expenditures. These expenditures were calculated to include many services not provided under the virtual model, the council said, including funds for teacher’s aides, janitors, nurses, school psychologists, and extra-curricular activities. (See “Teachers’ union challenges legality of Wisconsin cyber school,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3930.)

Dreyer stands firm against critics who say the company and its academies are only in it for the money. “This idea that we are turning some huge profit is really humorous to us,” she said, pointing out it would be extremely difficult for districts to provide these online alternative schools on their own.

Depending on the size of the school, the investment can range from the millions to tens of millions of dollars, she said. That’s a hard sell for most states, especially considering the recent budget crunch.

Dreyer equated the addition of virtual schools to purchasing textbooks. “Schools do not produce their own textbooks,” she said. “You need someone to come in and deliver a product and create some efficiency.”

Links:

Distance Learning Resource Network
http://www.dlrn.org

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com

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Feds crack down on internet crime

More than 130 people and $17 million have been seized nationwide in operations by the FBI and other agencies to stop cybercrime, the U.S. Department of Justice (JD) announced May 16. Although JD officials weren’t immediately available for comment, internet safety experts agreed that students are among the most common targets for such crimes.

JD dubbed the effort “Operation E-con,” a collection of separate investigations over the past five months targeting investment scams, sales of stolen software, online banking fraud—and even a purported Russian marriage service.

Attorney General John Ashcroft called the program “a decisive, nationally coordinated effort to root out and take action against some of the leading online, economic crime.” He was joined at a news conference by FBI Director Robert Mueller and other top JD officials.

Officials estimated the collective losses across more than 90 investigations at $176 million, affecting 89,000 victims.

The cases involved the FBI, Secret Service, Customs Service, IRS, Postal Inspection Service, Federal Trade Commission, and state and local police agencies.

“[Operation E-con demonstrates] we have a commitment,” said Dan Larkin, the FBI’s senior representative to the Internet Fraud and Complaint Center, based in West Virginia. “This is of high importance to the American public, who are increasingly finding themselves part of these schemes.”

In one case, suspects used a web site to sell more than $2 million worth of pharmaceutical drugs without prescriptions or the involvement of any doctors. In another case, approximately 400 victims lost about $3,000 each in a scheme that promised lonely men the hope of marrying a Russian woman.

Mueller repeatedly has stressed that cybercrime is among his priorities. Such cases can be difficult to solve, however, because they frequently involve overseas connections and digital evidence easy for perpetrators to erase or falsify.

“The internet enables criminals to cloak themselves in anonymity,” Ashcroft said.

The announcement also was designed to demonstrate that the FBI retains considerable cybercrime expertise, despite the transfer earlier this year of its flagship National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) to the new Department of Homeland Security.

Despite the loss of its NIPC computer specialists, Mueller has pledged a robust cybercrime division at FBI headquarters under Assistant FBI Director Jana Monroe. The FBI also has created what Mueller described as 60 specialized cybersquads around the country and is working to put investigators in other countries.

At the news conference, Mueller called the problem of cybercrime “large and growing,” noting that complaints increased 300 percent last year to 48,000.

Cyber criminals often target teens because of their innocence, said Teri Schroeder, founder and chief executive of i-Safe America Inc., a national nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping children safe online.

“Kids are ending up in situations they are not aware of,” Schroeder said. “These are situations that have real-life consequences.”

Schools can play a role in making students aware of the dangers that lurk online, she said, noting that i-Safe teaches kids to use the four Rs: to recognize, refuse, respond to, and report internet crimes.

The idea, she said, is to foster awareness and inform kids at an early age that steps they take online could, in fact, have dangerous consequences.

Links:

Justice Department
http://www.usdoj.gov

i-Safe America Inc.
http://www.isafe.org

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Hoops legend scores assist for at-risk students

Lansing, Mich., native and former basketball star Magic Johnson has opened centers in Atlanta, Chicago, and Houston devoted to his goal of making sure every child knows how to use a computer. On May 15, he opened one in his hometown, too.

The 11th Magic Johnson HP Inventor Center at Lansing’s Black Child and Family Institute features $60,000 in equipment donated by Hewlett-Packard Co. The 17-year-old institute helps more than 3,000 adults and children each year.

“Young people need to be guided,” Johnson told the Lansing State Journal for a May 16 story. “They need to be touched. They need to know someone cares about them. They have that here.”

Despite the rain and cold, about 300 people stood outside to hear Johnson speak and honor his contribution to the community he grew up in.

Johnson led his Everett High School basketball team to the state championship in 1977 and Michigan State University to the NCAA title in 1979 before enjoying a successful career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“It’s one of the most wonderful things to happen since Magic was on the basketball court,” Lansing resident Claudine Walker said about the center.

Ten-year-old Kris Pratt wasted no time exploring one of the new computers.

“They’ve got a whole bunch of stuff kids can use,” the youngster said, already thinking of the possibilities. “If you have to write an essay, you don’t have to use a pencil and write it down.”

The center’s offerings include 20 computers, printers, digital cameras, and a digital projector. It will be open to the public except when in use by a special class or session.

The center’s goal is to provide opportunities for people who don’t have access to the internet or aren’t computer savvy. Particularly at risk are certain minority groups, the elderly, and people with disabilities, program personnel explained.

“The gap continues to exist and is growing in the area of technology,” said Barbara Roberts Mason, the founder of the Black Child and Family Institute. “We have to eliminate that gap. It should not exist.”

The centers are part of a partnership between HP and the Magic Johnson Foundation. Five more are planned, including centers scheduled to open in Cleveland and Baltimore. Locations for the other three will be announced later.

Links:

Magic Johnson Foundation
http://www.magicjohnson.org

Hewlett-Packard Co.
http://www.hp.com

Black Child and Family Institute
http://www.lcc.edu/ece/location/ingham/black_child.htm

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Hollywood fights DVD copying software

Should educators and others be allowed to purchase software that can copy movies in digital video disc (DVD) format onto blank discs for personal or classroom “fair use”? That’s the question at issue in a new court battle pitting movie studio executives against the maker of one such program.

An increasingly popular class of software lets consumers make duplicate DVDs as backups by copying movies onto inexpensive blank discs using a personal computer. With two mouse clicks, one such package creates a near-perfect copy of a two-hour feature in as little as 20 minutes.

But movie buffs who want to make backups of their treasured DVD libraries are running into a formidable enemy: Hollywood, where studio executives worried about convenient, widespread movie piracy are about as nervous as Abbott and Costello in the mummy’s tomb.

Painfully aware of technology’s impact on the music industry, moviemakers were in court May 15 seeking to persuade U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco to declare the distribution of such software illegal under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“It is precisely the type of case Congress foresaw, predicted, and legislated,” a lawyer for the film studios told the judge.

The legal battle, which focuses on software products sold by 321 Studios Inc. of Chesterfield, Missouri, is emerging as one of the most significant technology debates in years. Congress, which once appeared inclined to intervene, is sitting out until the courtroom fight gets resolved.

The powerful Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) argues that this type of software circumvents the anti-copying digital “locks” that studios employ on DVDs, which would be illegal under the 1998 copyright law. There are typically no such locks on music CDs.

The MPAA maintains that consumers aren’t permitted to make personal backups of DVDs, saying a movie buff whose disc becomes scratched needs to buy a new one.

Consumers-rights organizations and some technology groups contend that copying software doesn’t unlawfully help users violate copyrights, because consumers should be allowed under “fair use” copyright provisions to make backups of DVDs they’ve already purchased.

Robert Moore, the head of 321 Studios, which sells its copying software for $99, said his company has the capability to develop other products that wouldn’t be affected by an adverse court ruling against the DVD copying software.

“The future of our company is not at stake, but the future of consumers’ expectations and what they perceive to be their rights are in question,” Moore said. “This case represents something very significant; it could set the standard.”

The latest software product from Moore’s company, called “DVD Xpress,” is enough to cause fits for studio executives. Unlike similar programs that can take hours to make copies and span most Hollywood movies across two blank discs, Xpress can squeeze a near-perfect copy onto a single disc in as little as 20 minutes.

“If I own the DVD and make a copy for my own personal use, there should be no problem with that,” said Martin of Laurel, Maryland, who doesn’t use 321’s software but has followed the technology debate. “They’re being a little overzealous in stopping me from protecting my assets.”

In a minor concession to Hollywood, 321’s software adds to each blank disc a warning about copyright laws and refuses to make further copies from a duplicate disc. But experts note that other copying software, freely available on the internet, doesn’t include such concessions and can make third- and fourth-generation copies just as perfectly.

“It’s almost to the point of a one-click operation, where even the average Joe can make a DVD backup,” says Adam Sleight of San Diego, who runs a popular web site with instructions on copying DVD movies.

Sleight says he’s copied hundreds of DVD movies onto blank discs, including many Disney films for his two children. One advantage of his efforts: When Sleight makes copies, he eliminates five to 10 minutes of previews and advertisements that typically precede his children’s movies.

Sleight acknowledges that “probably the majority of people” use such software to make illegal duplicates—such as copies of DVD rentals or movies borrowed from friends.

“That is probably what happens a lot of the time, but I think the movie studios should prioritize,” Sleight said. “They should target the people in China and the street vendors who sell them at a profit. The true thieves are the people who make a profit off them.”

Links:

321 Studios Inc.
http://www.321studios.com

Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org

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“Beyond Islands of Excellence” floats strategies for systemwide improvement

A new report released March 24 by the Learning First Alliance suggests that high-poverty school districts can raise student achievement by focusing on districtwide strategies to improve instruction. Titled “Beyond Islands of Excellence: What Districts Can Do to Improve Instruction and Achievement in All Schools,” the report outlines lessons learned from a study of five districts in particular and identifies practical steps that other districts can take to move beyond a few excellent schools to success across entire systems. The five districts studied—Aldine, Texas; Chula Vista, Calif.; Kent County, Md.; Minneapolis; and Providence, R.I.—were selected based on their ability to exhibit at least three years of improvement in math or reading across multiple grades and all ethnicities. The study’s findings are particularly useful as states and school districts work to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the report’s authors say. “We cannot continue to point to heroic principals and extraordinary teachers to improve the performance for all children,” said Judy Wurtzel, the group’s executive director. “Ensuring the success of all children requires systemwide approaches that support teachers and principals, not simply school-by-school fixes. The districts in our study are putting in place strategies that touch every school and every child.”

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SCO throws a legal scare at Linux users

In the latest chapter of an intellectual property battle that threatens to derail the open-source software movement just as it is beginning to catch on among schools, SCO Group—which owns key components of the Unix operating system—has sent letters to Linux customers claiming the software is an “unauthorized derivative” of its property.

The letters, which were sent in mid-May to approximately 1,500 companies around the world, warned that commercial users of Linux might face legal liability for using the operating system without a license from SCO, formerly known as Caldera.

The move follows SCO’s filing of a $1 billion lawsuit in March against International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) for allegedly taking bits of Unix code and transferring them to Linux (see “Lawsuit could threaten open-source movement in schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4410). IBM has called the lawsuit unfounded.

Although SCO did not send letters to Linux users in the education community, John Ferell, an intellectual property attorney with Carr & Ferell, said the law makes no exception for schools.

“There is no fair-use clause for educational or nonprofit organizations,” he said. If SCO’s allegations are found to be true, he added, schools could be held just as liable as companies.

If SCO’s latest tactic is successful, it also could undermine the Linux movement, which has been growing in large part because of the software’s very low cost and freedom from the hassles of proprietary software, such as Microsoft Corp.’s Windows.

But even if SCO fails to convince Linux users to pay for licenses, it has raised fear, uncertainty, and doubt—or “FUD”—about Linux and whether end users can be held liable if other portions are found to be what amounts to stolen property, some observers say.

SCO says it was just attempting to clear the air.

“When SCO’s own UNIX software code is being illegally copied into Linux, we believe we have an obligation to educate commercial users of the potential liability that could rest with them for using such software to run their business,” said Chris Sontag, a senior vice president of the company.

Lindon, Utah-based SCO acquired control of Unix intellectual property from Novell, which had bought the rights in 1992 from AT&T. AT&T’s Bell Laboratories created Unix for minicomputers in the late 1960s and commercialized it in the 1980s.

Linux, a Unix derivative first developed in the early 1990s by Finnish college student Linus Torvalds, has in recent years gained in popularity because of its low cost, reliability, and ability to run on inexpensive computer hardware.

In an eMail interview with the Associated Press, Torvalds said he has not heard what components of Linux might be infringing.

“I’d dearly love to hear exactly what they think is infringing, but they haven’t told anybody,” he said. “Oh, well. They seem to be more interested in FUD than anything else.”

SCO officials have declined requests to disclose exactly which lines of Unix code allegedly were copied into Linux, citing proprietary interests in maintaining trade secrets. Some members of the open-source movement say SCO’s refusal makes it impossible to assess the validity of the company’s claims.

SCO also announced it was pulling its own version of Linux, which might be significant because it was distributed under the same license as other versions. That license allows for the free redistribution of the software.

“I suspect the current letter is because their lawyers finally noticed that as long as they ship Linux, they are themselves bound by the license under which it ships,” Torvalds said.

Some observers believe SCO sued IBM in an effort to be bought—a charge SCO denies. SCO’s stock price has nearly doubled since it filed the lawsuit, said Bruce Perens, an open-source software advocate and consultant. He said he believes it’s a tactic of SCO’s investors to recoup their investment.

“They don’t care who or what they hurt,” he said.

Darl McBride, SCO’s chief executive, said the company is not trying to find a buyer but is merely informing users of the problem. He said most Linux distributors leave their customers liable.

“Everyone is protected except the users,” he said. “We’re trying to alert users there are these problems. We’re trying to do this in a favorable fashion. … The hot potato is being passed. We’re trying to keep them from being burned.”

Links:

SCO Group
http://www.sco.com

IBM
http://www.ibm.com

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$8.36 million to intergrate arts curricula

The Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant Program supports the development, documentation, evaluation and dissemination of innovative, cohesive models that have demonstrated their effectiveness in (1) integrating arts into the core elementary and middle school curricula, (2) strengthening arts instruction in these grades, and (3) improving students’ academic performance, including their skills in creating, performing, and responding to the arts. The U.S. Department of Education expects to grant 33 awards ranging from $293,000 to $836,000.

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$38 million to strengthen schools’ emergency response plans

This U.S. Department of Education (ED) program provides $38 million in grants to local educational agencies to improve and strengthen emergency response and crisis management plans, including training school personnel, students, and parents in emergency response procedures and coordinating with local law enforcement, public safety, health, and mental health agencies. ED expects to make 150 awards ranging between $100,000 and $500,000.

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