Ready for a Shooter? 1 in 5 School Police Say No
One in five school police officers say their school is not prepared to handle an active-shooter situation, according to a nationally representative survey of school resource officers conducted by the Education Week Research Center.
And some school police report they haven't been adequately trained to work in schools. Some also say their schools don't set limits on their role in student discipline, which civil rights groups say is necessary to protect the rights of students.
School law enforcement officials say some officers will never feel fully prepared for an event like a shooting because they are always looking for ways to improve. They also have to balance the need to be ready for unlikely worst-case scenarios with the everyday duties of the job that requires them, most essentially, to build trust with students.
The survey findings come as elected officials and policymakers push to add more school-based officers in response to two large school shootings this year.
Nearly 400 school officers responded to the online survey administered by the Education Week Research Center in March and April, after a gunman killed 17 people in the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and before 10 people were killed in a May attack in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.
Two high-casualty school shootings so close together have intensified debates about school safety, leading districts and governors to convene task forces and scrape together any funding they can find to upgrade security measures and ease the minds of anxious parents.
"Parkland did something to this country," said Bruce Copple, a school resource officer and safety director for the school district in Greensburg, Ind., "Even in our small community, Parkland did something."
In many places, the post-Parkland safety plans include more police in schools.
In Florida, state lawmakers rushed to respond to the Parkland shooting by passing a multi-pronged safety bill that included new gun restrictions and a requirement that every school campus in the state have at least one armed person on site—either a law enforcement officer or a staff member participating in a new state program. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott released a plan that calls for schools to hire retired police and military members to work as school resource officers.
"The push, of course, is a result of school shootings, schools wanting to protect their facilities and students as well as they can," said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides training for school police. "We want to make sure that people understand the importance of selecting the right officers for these positions, making sure they are veteran officers, and making sure they are specially trained to work in a school environment."
Registrations for NASRO's annual conference are up about 25 percent this year, Canady said.
Not Just 'Armed Guards'
School resource officers who spoke to Education Week said they aren't surprised that one-fifth of survey respondents believe their schools are unprepared for an active shooter.
Officers say they weigh a range of factors when making that determination, including how well schools have trained teachers and other staff in safety protocols, how often students practice lockdown drills, whether students have strong relationships with adults at school, and whether physical security measures like cameras have been properly maintained.
Officers may feel unprepared if their schools have left them out of the safety planning process, Copple said.
"I think sometimes we have knee-jerk reactions to just put [armed] people in the building and say we're safe," he said. But school police officers should not be treated as armed guards with a limited role, he said. Rather, schools should consult them about working with students, responding to threats and safety concerns, coordinating with first responders, and preparing buildings.
And even the most prepared officers must re-examine their plans after large school shootings, Copple said. For example, Parkland students were fleeing the campus in response to a fire alarm when the shooting there started, complicating a building lockdown. That led Greensburg to review its fire alarm protocols, he said.
In Crocker, Mo., Officer Shawn Wright reviewed the safety plans for his small district, where students of all grades are taught in a single building. Wright has numbered the building's doors and windows to make it easier to share locations in a crisis situation, he's locked down building entrances during the school day so visitors can be more easily screened, and he's included bus drivers and administrative assistants in safety drills.
"We feel confident that if somebody tried to come into a school, we would be prepared for it," Wright said. "Now, are we going to be prepared for every situation? Absolutely not…. You're never going to find a perfectly safe situation, I don't care who you talk to."
The 600-student Crocker district has also discussed arming some staff, providing them training and special vests so that first responders could spot them in an emergency. Wright would not say if teachers or staff now carry guns, but he said there's a sign in front of the building that warns would-be intruders that staff members may be armed and "will do everything necessary to protect our students."
President Donald Trump has pushed for schools to arm more staff and teachers after the Parkland shooting, an idea that was widely panned by educator groups, and Gov. Abbott included calls to arm staff in his safety plan for Texas schools. Thirty-three percent of officers responding to the Education Week Research Center survey agreed that "training and arming a select group of teachers would make schools safer."
But officers who answered the survey were much more likely to link school law enforcement to safety: 88 percent agreed that their presence helped deter shootings, and 95 percent said having an armed officer on campus would serve to "minimize harm" in the event of a shooting.
Confronting a Shooter
Many shootings have occurred at schools with on-site police, but those officers aren't always the first person to engage the shooter. Last month, students in a Noblesville, Ind., middle school say a teacher rushed to disarm a classmate who fired a gun in his classroom. That gunman seriously injured the teacher and a 13-year-old girl.
In March, the Washington Post analyzed every school shooting event since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Examining 200 incidents, it found only one where a school officer gunned down an active shooter. But school police have taken an active role in intervening in several recent incidents, raising their profile in the school safety debate.
At the 1,400-student Santa Fe High School, two school resource officers were on duty when a 17-year-old student opened fire in an art room. One was seriously injured responding to the gunman.
On May 16, school resource officer Mark Dallas responded to the sound of gun shots in the gym at Dixon High School in Dixon, Ill., where students were rehearsing for graduation. He exchanged gunfire with a former student armed with a rifle, stopping the attack. Only the suspect was injured.
"Officer Dallas' bravery and quick action prevented what could have been an unimaginable tragedy," Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said.
In Parkland, by contrast, families of slain students wonder what might have changed if an on-campus sheriff's deputy had entered the building to engage the gunman; security footage shows him standing outside during the attack.
A Multi-Faceted Job
School shootings remain statistically rare events, but often lead to more school police. Though federal data show numbers of violent homicides in schools have stayed at roughly the same level in the years since Columbine, the share of schools with on-site officers has risen significantly. In the 2015-16 school year, 36 percent of primary schools and 65 percent of secondary schools reported the presence of an officer at least once a week, according to the most recent federal data.
But school police are much more likely to be seen monitoring a hallway between classes than responding to a school shooting. Civil rights groups say the role of law enforcement is counter to the purpose of schools, and they fear efforts to add more officers will lead to more punitive discipline. They are especially concerned about the treatment of nonwhite students and students with disabilities, who are arrested at school and referred to police at disproportionately high rates.
"The impulse to police school communities will not prevent further tragedies and will be counterproductive towards building safe, nurturing, and supportive learning environments," said a statement released by the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of civil rights and student groups, after the Parkland shooting. "We have to fundamentally rethink safety by centering the social, emotional, and mental health needs of young people and providing schools and communities with the resources and supports necessary to address the root causes of issues that are driving their pain, trauma and isolation."
Only 12 states require specialized training for officers who work the school beat, according to a 2015 study by the American Institutes for Research, which means some officers have little transition between patrolling city streets and monitoring school hallways. Civil rights and school policing groups agree that schools are unique environments, and that officers should be carefully selected and trained.
"We have to have that cop working the school that every other division of the police department wants," said Don Bridges, a school resource officer in Baltimore County, Md., and president of NASRO. "We have to have the brightest and best. This is, without question, the most challenging job in law enforcement."
Officers need to understand how to de-escalate conflicts with teens, who may be more impulsive than adults, he said. And they need to focus on relationships with students so that they feel at ease reporting safety concerns before they become problems, Bridges said.
Twenty-five percent of officers responding to the Education Week Research Center survey said they had no prior experience working with youth, and 19 percent said they had been given insufficient training to work in a school environment. While 93 percent said they'd been trained to respond to an active shooter, only 54 percent said they had been trained to work with special education students, who are protected by federal laws that prohibit discipline for behaviors related to diagnosed disabilities.
NASRO advises officers to stay out of routine school discipline issues that it says could better be handled by school administrators. It recommends schools sign agreements with law enforcement agencies that detail officers' responsibilities and outline their role in areas like discipline. But 34 percent of survey respondents said their schools did not specify what types of student disciplinary issues they can intervene in.
Bridges helped launch his county's school resource officer program in 1997, two years before the Columbine shooting brought a major influx of police into schools. He regularly surveyed students, parents, and school staff about how safe and supported they felt at school, and he was pleased to see positive results.
School shootings often change the way officers think on the job. "I don't know how it couldn't," Bridges said, but officers need to be just as prepared for the more routine interactions they will have with students every day, he said.
Bridges just trained 19 new Baltimore County school resource officers.
"The first thing I tell them is that if you don't like kids, this position is not for you," he said.
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Vol. 37, Issue 34, Page 1Published in Print: June 6, 2018, as Ready for a Shooter? Some School Police Say No