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Are Emergency Relief Funds for School Districts Supporting Community Violence Interventions?

August 15, 2022

By Philip Rocco, Robert Dietterick, and Amanda Kass 

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Since the spring of 2021, the Biden administration has encouraged local and state governments to respond to cycles of violence––and gun violence in particular––through a range of community violence interventions (CVIs) and violence prevention strategies. The administration has repeatedly pointed to the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program (SLFRF) as a source of revenue for these projects.  

There is considerable variation in recipient governments’ investments in CVI, as our prior blog posts in this series have shown. Yet SLFRF funds aren’t the only source of federal aid to support violence intervention and prevention initiatives. The Biden administration has also encouraged school districts to support these efforts with support from the American Rescue Plan Act’s  Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).1  

While limited reporting requirements make it difficult to clearly pin down how districts are using ESSER funds in real time, our analysis of ESSER funding plans released by school districts in 26 sample cities suggests that while just two school districts are explicitly building CVI and violence prevention strategies into their ESSER plans, a far larger are planning to use funds in ways that are consistent with federal guidance on using ESSER funds support violence reduction.2 As such, while most of the school districts we examined are not framing their use of ESSER funds in terms of addressing violence, their planned use of the funding may have in-direct violence intervention and prevention impacts.  

Supporting CVI and Violence Prevention Strategies with ESSER Funding

The Biden administration’s push for state and local governments to use federal funds to address violence  began in the spring of 2021, shortly after the passage of ARPA.3 In May and June, the U.S. Department of Education released two (1,2) guidance documents explaining that $122 billion in support under ARPA’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, directed at local education agencies could be used to support community violence interventions and violence prevention programs.4 The Department’s guidance on ESSER suggests a broad range of initiatives for addressing violence, including: 

  • Youth violence reduction and mentorship programs
  • Summer and year-round work-based or service-learning programs for high school students
  • Social, emotional, mental health, and academic supports to address the impacts of isolation during the pandemic, including those related to substance use disorder
  • Support for “full-service community schools which leverage partnerships with non-profits and community-based organizations, that are effective parts of comprehensive community violence prevention strategies”
  • Supports for students who graduated high school or left school in 2020 and 2021 who have not yet successfully transitioned to college or careers

Tracking how ESSER funds are being used to support CVI and violence prevention strategies is particularly difficult. First, whereas SLFRF expenditure data are reported quarterly by many recipient governments, ESSER expenditure data are only reported annually. This likely means we will not have spending data on ARP ESSER until well after the first annual reporting period ends. Second, unlike state and local relief funds, ESSER rules do not require recipient governments to classify spending with granular categories. Rather, the reporting categories under ESSER are quite broad.5 Finally, as noted above, the types of CVI and violence prevention strategies described in Department of Education guidance are quite heterogeneous.

Recognizing these difficulties, we wanted to get a sense of how school districts in our 26 sample cities are using their ARP ESSER dollars, whether they were using funds to support community violence intervention and prevention, and if they were explicitly discussing their planned use of funds as addressing violence and public safety. To do this, we collected all available ARP ESSER plans released by local education agencies.6 We then noted whether using ESSER funds to address issues related to violence were mentioned at all in these plans. Finally, we noted whether each plan included any CVI and/or prevention-related initiatives mentioned in the Department of Education’s guidance document, even if the school district was not framing the spending plans as meant to be a CVI or violence prevention effort.

What We Found

Of the 26 ESSER spending plans we reviewed, only two mentioned violence intervention or prevention specifically (see table below). The School District of Philadelphia allocates – as a part of Focus Area Three in its ARP ESSER plan – funding to counteract the effects of gun violence for those at-risk youth who are most affected. The Philadelphia program focuses on counselor support, community healing, and peer mentorship. Chicago Public Schools, as a part of its “Moving Forward Together” strategy, allocates funds for high-risk youth to transition into the workforce and providing support to disrupt the gun violence cycle.

CategoryNumber of Plans (total = 26) Fraction of All Plans (total = 26)
Plans explicitly discussing program meant to address violence 27.69%
Initiatives in Department of Education Guidance on how to use ESSR Funds to Respond to Violence and Promote Public Safety
Youth violence reduction and mentorship programs 934.62%
Summer and year-round work-based or service-learning programs for high school students (not just high school) 519.23%
Summer Learning/Enrichment 2284.62%
Supports to address impacts of isolation, including those to address substance use disorder 26100%
Support for full-service community schools 1973.08%
Supports for students who graduated high school or left school in 2020 and 2021 who have not yet successfully transitioned to college or careers 13.85%

Yet it is worth remembering that the Department of Education’s guidelines allow ESSER funds to be committed to a wide variety of purposes and as noted above, its guidance letters suggest a wide variety of strategies that may support violence prevention and reduction.   

If we widen the lens to include the policy interventions mentioned by the Department of Education’s guidance, several other patterns emerge.  

  • Twenty-two of the twenty-six ESSER plans allocated funds for summer programing or service-based learning, or roughly 85% of the sample cities. The majority of programs listed under this category emerge in the form of summer activities or camps, aimed at bringing students for additional, targeted academic support, expanding literacy rates, and improving math skills. Boston Public Schools, for example, allocates among many things, funds for language training programs, summer academic support, literacy boosting and tutoring. Similarly, Milwaukee Public Schools allocated funds for career and technical training in high schools.  
  • 19 plans (roughly 73% of the total) list some type of public or community-based partnership, as established by the full-service community school category. In some cases, the partnership in question is either unclear or appears to be planned for future development. However, the common thread for most partnerships occurred in the form of online learning academies/services or partnerships with community colleges.     
  • All 26 sample cities, as a part of their ARPA ESSER spending plans, planned on using funds for wraparound programs and services. This category is intentionally broad and can include a wide range of programs such as emotional and health supports, funding for the arts and clubs, peer mentorship, and technology support, to name a few. Programs varied for each school district/sample city, though common appropriations included bridging the technology gap with student access to Chromebooks/iPads, STEM programs, emotional support services/counseling, and improved safety/transportation. As described in the reports, these expenditures appeared only loosely tied to violence prevention and reduction strategies.  


In the spirit of the ESSER program’s highly flexible structure, the Department of Education’s guidance suggested a great variety of ways in which local education agencies could use ESSER dollars to support CVI and violence prevention strategies. That flexibility shows up in our analysis. If we define CVI broadly––encompassing the various interventions suggested in the Department’s guidance––most districts in our sample could be said to be making some kind of investment. 

Still, only 2 of 26 districts report planning committing ESSER funding specifically to programs meant to address gun violence. This evidence raises questions about how central the goal of violence reduction, and the strategy of community violence interventions, have been in districts’ planning processes.  

Further, it is worth noting that federal guidance often blurs the distinction between CVI and violence prevention. While CVI strategies narrowly focus on the small number of people at the highest risk for being involved in gun violence, violence prevention strategies are often much broader and may have a longer-term, more diffuse impact on overall violence rates.  

In sum, the analysis here suggests the need for a more careful examination of “lateral” support for CVIs across multiple units of government and multiple sources of funding within individual communities.  


1 While ESSER was initially funded by the CARES Act, we limit our attention here to ESSER plans using funding allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act, since federal guidance on using ESSER dollars to support CVI work did not emerge until ARPA’s passage. 

2 Our analysis here focuses on the largest school district in each of the 26 metropolitan cities contained in our sample (see Appendix for list).  

3 While the Biden administration and other federal officials often use “community violence intervention” in their communications we use the phrase “CVI and violence prevention” because we draw a distinction between CVI and violence prevention. This distinction is not always present in guidance from federal agencies. For more on this topic see our August 8, 2022 blog post.  

4 The administration has also encouraged state and local education agencies to use other sources of federal funding to address violence, which we do not analyze here. In October, the Department of Education sent a letter to chief state school officers noting  other sources of support that could help to advance CVI goals “combat gun violence and other violent crime” through CVI and violence prevention strategies. First, the letter mentioned the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers program (21st CCLC), a $1.26 billion program in fiscal year (FY) 2021 that supports the creation of community learning centers for out-of-school and summer learning programs to help students who attend schools with high rates of students living in poverty and that are underperforming. This funding, the department suggested, could help efforts aimed at “re-engaging disconnected youth and supporting students impacted by the trauma of community violence” through a variety of programs. Second, the letter mentioned The Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) program, a $1.22 billion grant program that supports student academic achievement by increasing the capacity of states, local educational agencies, schools, and local communities to improve school conditions for student learning.   

5 Local education agencies (LEAs) must report funds spent in each of the following categories: Addressing Physical Health and Safety, Meeting Students’ Academic, Social, Emotional, and Other Needs (Excluding Mental Health Supports), Mental Health Supports for Students and Staff, and Operational Continuity and Other Uses. Additionally, LEAs must note funds committed to activities that reengage students with poor attendance or participation, maintain safe in-person instruction, provide internet access, and address learning loss. Unlike the SLFRF, there is not specific category for violence intervention or prevention.  

6 It is worth noting that our analysis only looks at planned spending as opposed to actual. 

Appendix: School Districts Included in Analysis

NameEnrollment (2019)Web Address
Albuquerque School District89,788 http://WWW.APS.EDU
Atlanta Public Schools 52,377
Austin Independent School District 80,032
Baltimore City Schools79,297
Boston City School District  51,433
Buffalo Public Schools33,756http://WWW.BUFFALOSCHOOLS.ORG 
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools147,638 
Chicago Public Schools359,476 
Denver School District92,039
Detroit Public Schools49,931 
East Baton Rouge School District40,668
Jersey City School System29,255 
Los Angeles Unified School District  596,937 
Milwaukee Public Schools75,431 
Minneapolis Special School District 35,580http://WWW.MPLS.K12.MN.US 
Newark City School System40,448http://WWW.NPS.K12.NJ.US 
Oakland Unified School District36,524 http://WWW.OUSD.K12.CA.US 
Philadelphia School District132,520 
Phoenix Union High School District27,573http://WWW.PHXHS.K12.AZ.US 
Pittsburgh City School District22,934
Portland School District48,710 
Shelby County School District112,125
St. Louis City Board of Education21,814 
St. Paul Public School District36,888 
Stockton City Unified School District 37,565 
Toledo City School District23,302