Missouri schools with lower state funding suffered higher rates of gun violence

The state contributes less to school budgets in 68% of districts than a decade ago

By: - September 14, 2021 7:00 am

Christian Rich, 15, poses for a portrait outside the Sankofa Training Center on September 7, 2021 in St. Louis (photo courtesy of The Kansas City Star).

Christian Rich has seen more death and violence at age 15 than many experience in a lifetime.

His best friend, cousin, and a number of classmates have all been killed with guns.

At school, his grief comes out in different ways: fights, arguments with teachers, sometimes walking out of class altogether. He was only in the classroom at Sumner High School in St. Louis for a few weeks before he was expelled earlier this month.

Rich is trying to regulate his emotions, he says.

“I think twice when I go do stuff because I don’t want to live my life in a jail cell where I can’t even see my family, can’t even have kids or anything,” he said.

“I want to do something bigger with my life.”

He will have to do it with very little help from the state, at least where education is concerned. Sumner, like schools across Missouri, does not receive the resources needed to help students burdened with gun violence trauma.

This story is part of a series The Star and its partners across the state are producing this year focusing on public health issues that contribute to gun violence. These include income, housing, food insecurity, built environments and school quality.

After kicking off the series earlier this year and publishing stories that explored the roles of income, housing and food insecurity in gun violence, we began reporting on issues of built environment. That includes negative features in neighborhoods, such as vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

The effort is undertaken as part of the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a two-year, statewide solutions journalism collaboration supported by the nonprofits Report for America and the Missouri Foundation for Health. The Star has partnered in the project with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Springfield News-Leader and The Missouri Independent.

Experts, administrators, parents and teachers say communities with high levels of gun violence need more counselors, security and trauma-informed training to provide children with the same standard of education as other districts. But Missouri has provided less aid to schools in those communities over the years, helping to create cycles of gun violence and poor educational outcomes.

A Star analysis of 20 years of school finance data found Missouri school districts suffering from gun violence received less financial support from the state compared to others. The four jurisdictions with the highest rates of firearm deaths — St. Louis City and Jackson, Mercer and Reynolds counties — all had lower than average rates of state aid to school districts.

Missouri funded about 31% of school budgets in 2020, but only around 8% for the St. Louis City Public Schools and less than 3% for Kansas City Public Schools. Nationally, Missouri ranks last in education funding and seventh in firearm deaths.

The majority of the remaining budget is funded through local sources, such as property taxes, and a smaller portion comes from money from the federal government.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education points out that school funding is complicated, especially in Kansas City and St. Louis, where a larger percentage of state money goes to charter schools.

But even when including charter schools, districts in Missouri’s two largest cities both had less than average rates of funding compared to the rest of the state.

“Children, in particular, who grow up in neighborhoods that see high levels of gun violence — they are in under-resourced schools,” said Akua Bonsu Bonsu, senior researcher at nonprofit Everytown Center for Gun Safety.

“It’s extremely unfortunate, because these schools are tasked with taking care of these children and connecting them with resources they may not have available to them readily. So when they don’t have funding, it can create a cycle of deficit.”

In Kansas City public schools, teachers received no training on how to work with students suffering from trauma before 2020. In rural school districts, educators struggle to address suicide in both children and their parents, but have no money to provide mental health and social service resources.

Missouri state Sen. Karla May, a Democrat whose Fourth District is home to many Sumner students, said Missouri’s education funding should be changed so more money goes to the schools that need it most.

“It costs more to educate a child in those conditions than the cost to educate a child that may live in what you might call ‘an affluent neighborhood,’ where they come from a two-parent household and things are safe,” May said.

Unequal outcomes

Darren Seals Sr. and Christian Rich interact during a mentoring session inside the Sankofa Training Center on September 7, 2021 in St. Louis (photo courtesy of The Kansas City Star).

On his way to Sumner, Rich would pass rows of abandoned buildings with chipped paint and broken windows. Each day, he was greeted by metal detectors and two security guards at the front door.

Rich lives in Lewis Place, the neighborhood with the fifth highest rate of gun violence in St. Louis, where nearly 60% of children live in poverty.

Last year, police reported a firearm injury or homicide in the neighborhood about once every two weeks. Rich is familiar with the sound of shootings and accustomed to the sight of guns.

“I’m traumatized from that,” he said. “I try not to be, but it stays in your mind.”

He tries to forget in different ways. Sometimes he stays out late at night, coming to school hungry and without any sleep. The day he was expelled, Rich got into a fight with another kid who insulted one of his friends who died last year.

Sumner has only two guidance counselors for about 270 students. In 2019, less than 40% of students attended class regularly, and the school used discipline at a rate 13 times higher than the state average, according to state data.

It is another example of how violence in the community creeps into schools and creates disparities in education, according to Superintendent Kelvin Adams of the St. Louis district.

“Kids who are dealing with violence are going to come in and express how they feel in school buildings,” Adams said. “They are working through some things, and sometimes, teachers and administrators are asking them to respond in a traditional way, and that’s not always easy for kids who are working through that baggage of what goes on in the community.”

Now that Rich is out of Sumner, he will try to get into another school — likely Vashon High School, which has around 450 students.

But with similar rates of gun violence in the area, frequent disciplinary incidents and lack of school funding, the conditions are not likely to be much better.

“It isn’t so easy for a kid like me,” Rich said.

Many teens at Sumner are going through similar troubles. Rhea Willis, a special education teacher at the school, has seen it too many times in her 31 years working in the area.

“I’m tired of seeing our babies die,” Willis said.

“How people are handling our kids, to me, is sometimes insensitive,” she said. “We have a lot of kids that are coming in with something like PTSD that has not been diagnosed. A lot of kids cannot control their behavior, and then classroom management becomes an issue.”

It is an issue the school district recognizes, said Adams, the superintendent. In places grappling with gun violence, students’ mental health needs are affecting educational outcomes.

“In these types of communities you cannot separate the two,” Adams said

To mitigate this, St. Louis district has invested in over 130 security officers as well as social workers and trauma care over the past few years, even sending in trauma teams to schools when a student dies by gun violence.

But that means more money diverted from academic resources and other educational costs, like teacher salaries.

“These schools need to be resourced differently — we have some of the highest crime rates in the country, but they still want to say, ‘we’re going to give you the same kind of funding as we give everybody else,’ when those factors are real and tangible,” Adams said. “Some school districts don’t have social workers, some school districts don’t have security— those are resources we must provide.”

In 2009, a coalition of 250 rural, urban and suburban school districts joined together to challenge the state’s school funding formula before the Missouri Supreme Court.

They argued the formula resulted in wide disparities between school districts. But the court ruled that while a right to free public education exists, no right to equitable school funding exists.

The state now contributes less to school budgets in 68% of districts than it did a decade ago, according to a report from the state auditor’s office. At the same time, gun deaths have increased by 47% from 2010 to 2019, the last year such data was available.

“The only way to address these kinds of issues is to have significantly increased equalization of the state formula. That means more state money, in most cases,” said John Meyers, an education consultant for the National Education Policy Center who worked on the court case.

With such little state aid, the district in St. Louis must rely on local funds and grants to provide services like security, counseling and trauma training to address gun violence in the community.

Meanwhile, affluent school districts in nearby St. Louis County are free to use local funds in other ways.

At Ladue High School, one entrance boasts a circle drive lined with well-kept shrubbery, and around the corner a bright blue banner greets students before they enter a large gymnasium.

There have been no shootings in Ladue this year and only one reported homicide over the last decade. Each grade is assigned its own guidance counselor, the school has a 24/7 cyber bullying hotline and a monthly counseling newsletter.

State funds make up 4% of the Ladue School District budget — that is a larger proportion than what Kansas City schools receive and just 3.5% less than what St. Louis city schools receive. Meanwhile, the median income at Ladue is nearly three times that of the St. Louis and Kansas City public school districts, meaning revenue from local property taxes will also be higher.

When reached for comment, a representative from the Ladue School District declined a request for an interview.

‘No counseling’

When he was in elementary school, Rich discovered a body on his front doorstep. Not realizing the man was dead, 11-year-old Rich knelt down to help him.

“I’m down, telling him to get up, and I see blood, so I moved back, covered my eyes, and ran and told my mama,” Rich said.

The next day, Rich and his mother moved out of the neighborhood, but the image of the dead man has stayed with him.

“I’ve seen a lot, but I hold it down and use it as a lesson — I can be him one day, so let me not be him,” Rich said.

When he was at Yeatman Middle School, Rich had behavioral problems — class disruptions, arguments with teachers, roaming the hallways during class time.

The school most often dealt with Rich’s issues through some sort of disciplinary actions: detentions, suspensions, even having him handcuffed and patted down by the school’s female security officer, an incident that still upsets him.

Rich does not recall ever receiving counseling in school and said few teachers have expressed an understanding of the trauma he had experienced.

“No, no counseling. You mean like, people to talk to me?” Rich said when asked about school resources. “I used to run out of the school, but there was never any counseling.”

Schools need to move away from simply punishing students or kicking them out when students act out, said Byron West, a family and behavior specialist who has been working at Yeatman for 11 years.

In that time, West has seen dozens of middle school aged children lose their lives to gun violence. He has been working to handle behavior problems by creating a plan that includes school counseling and meeting with support staff, rather than turning to punitive measures like multiple-day suspensions.

“We come up with different plans and ideas to help out with students — some of it is tangible and some of it is intangible,” West said. “Whether it is food they need, clothes they need, or guidance they need.”

Shifting the state’s burden

Jennifer Gwinner is a middle school teacher at Northeast Middle School, which is located in an area with a higher rate of gun violence. Gwinner works with students who experience gun violence, and has at least two former students who were incarcerated for gun violence-related incidents. She strives to teach and work with students through a trauma-informed lenses, centering their experiences (often with gun violence) into understanding their attitudes and behaviors in school (photo courtesy of The Kansas City Star).

Across the state in Kansas City, Northeast Middle School teacher Jennifer Gwinner cries when she thinks about the day she learned a former student had killed someone.

He had just started high school when he shot someone during a gun sale.

“I felt like a failure because of what happened,” Gwinner said, choking back tears. “I’m sad for him… because he was so bright and funny, and he drove me crazy some days, but there was so much potential there. And his life now is in a cell.”

Kansas City is second only to St. Louis for its gun violence rate in Missouri, but the Kansas City Public School District receives almost no support from the state. The portion of its budget that comes from Missouri is less than 3% — a lower percentage than all but two other school districts in Missouri: Brentwood and Clayton, both affluent suburban St. Louis districts with far lower rates of gun violence.

School districts, analysts and education advocates anticipated this would happen — in 2005, when the funding formula was determined, legislators created a “hold harmless” provision: no school would ever receive less state funding than it did in 2005.

But some pointed out this would disproportionately benefit suburban districts — as property values increased in those areas, their state funding levels remained the same, meaning districts like Clayton, Ladue and Brentwood that do not need as many state dollars today are still getting them, leaving less funding available for communities with more gun violence and fewer resources.

The state wants to shift the burden away from itself and onto local communities, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in statement provided to The Star, pointing to the potential for communities to increase taxes to fund schools.

“Local public schools have the ability to generate local revenues through voter approved property taxes. The foundation formula supplements those local funds,” said Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for the department. “Many other states take a more centralized approach, resulting in more state funds and fewer local funds used to support education.”

For teachers, the lack of help and resources means that on top of their real job duties they are expected to act as mentors and counselors to students whose traumas and challenges they aren’t trained to deal with.

Gwinner continued to think about her former student, and eventually wrote to him in prison. He wrote back, telling Gwinner that she wasn’t a failure. He was planning on getting his GED.

Still, Gwinner worries more of her seventh- and eighth-graders will fall victim to the same dangers outside the school walls. Many arrive already familiar with the sound of gunshots.

“We have students who come in one day and they’re just in a terrible mood, and you can’t figure out what it is that’s going on,” Gwinner said. “Then a few weeks later, you learn, well, their uncle died.”

Gwinner took a trauma-teaching training program to help in such cases. Soon other teachers in the district will do the same, funded by grant money the district received through the federal Victims Against Crime Act.

“I used to kind of take it personally,” Gwinner said. “But now, instead of me saying, ‘That kid’s trouble.’ Instead of me going, ‘why did you do that?’ My question now is, ‘what’s happened to you? What’s going on?’”

A community crisis

In rural Franklin County, just west of St. Louis, four students in the St. Clair R-XIII School District died by suicide during the 2012-2013 school year. The youngest was just 13.

The deaths shook St. Clair, a small town of less than 5,000, and the school district implemented character and relationship building programs that touched on mental health.

But nearly a decade later, the problem has only grown worse. Across Missouri, suicides make up two-thirds of all gun deaths and in many places, teen suicide has risen over the years.

Franklin County ranks in the top 30% of the state for its rate of firearm suicide. And like the big public school districts in Kansas City and St. Louis, it also ranks in the top third for the amount of school funding it must produce locally.

Under Missouri’s current state school funding model, rural districts often struggle not to go into deficit covering basic needs like the cost of transportation and teacher salaries, and have limited access to internet and virtual resources.

That leaves them with few tools to combat the rise of suicide in their communities.

“We’ve done a lot of things to help students, but it’s (suicide) certainly a crisis in this community,” said Kyle Kruse, St. Clair School District superintendent. “There is no social well-being or emotional well-being or mental health component of the state funding formula… We’re going to have to rely on federal dollars that will eventually run out.”

Cost of opportunity

Darren Seals carries scars from 13 different bullet wounds.

His life has changed a lot, and he now has one goal: save youth and community members from the cycle of violence he experienced as teenager.

“I started noticing my friend’s sons were dying. They would die, and then their sons would die,” Seals said.

Over the last year, Seals has been running Sankofa Unity Center out of the basement of a formerly abandoned church building, offering GED classes, employment connections, unofficial group and individual counseling, as well as food and clothing.

For Rich, who says “he knows he is safe as long as he has Sankofa,” the center is giving him the care and opportunities he could not get at school.

But there are thousands of other students suffering from decades of disparities in education funding, particularly as schools have become community fixtures responsible for the educational, mental and social needs of students.

Missouri’s current funding model— like most other states— is calibrated to the “cost of adequacy. ” It looks at the expenditure of the state’s top performing schools to determine how much money should be going to each district.

The National Education Policy Center, along with other researchers, experts and lawmakers, say there is a better financial model.

Funding for the “cost of opportunity” would take into account the amount of money schools need to address students’ public health needs like the impact of gun violence, structural racism, food and housing insecurity.

“Public education is asked to address the education learning needs of kids who come in who have health issues, who have homelessness issues, who have violence in the neighborhood,” Meyer said.

“They need far more funding than they currently have — it’s not just about getting those kids to proficiency, it’s helping them create a life that mitigates against the environment that they came from.”

This story has been updated and corrected since it originally published. 

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Humera Lodhi
Humera Lodhi

Humera Lodhi grew up in Columbia, Missouri and specializes in data-driven journalism. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in statistics and journalism from the University of Missouri. She joined The Star after completing a master’s degree at Columbia University and a fellowship at The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues.