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School Climate & Safety

Districts Get Bold on School Security

January 22, 2013 9 min read
Retired state trooper Les Strawbridge patrols the halls at Butler Intermediate High School in Butler, Pa. The district accelerated efforts to arm school resource officers within days of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of a wide-ranging anti-violence plan in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings comes as many districts are adopting new and sometimes dramatic measures—including arming teachers and volunteers—intended to prevent similar tragedies in their own schools.

School safety experts warn against making major changes to security procedures without thinking those changes through. But in many communities, people say not taking action after the deadliest K-12 shootings in American history is just not an option.

“We started thinking about it right away,” said Angela Bono-Severy, the president of the PTA at Tanglewood Elementary School in Lumberton, N.C. “The weekend of the shootings, I received phone calls and text messages from at least a dozen different parents asking, ‘What is Tanglewood doing?’ ”

In Tanglewood’s case, the PTA quickly switched gears from its usual fundraisers for school technology items to raising money to enhance school security.

Other school systems, municipalities, and law-enforcement agencies around the country are hiring more school resource officers, organizing armed volunteers to patrol schools, or ratcheting up training for educators and school guards on how to handle so-called active-shooter cases.

They are reacting to the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which a 20-year-old intruder shot his way into the building Dec. 14 and took the lives of 20 1st graders and six staff members before turning the gun on himself. Safety experts have said that much of how Sandy Hook teachers and students had prepared for emergencies was exactly right and that the school’s safety measures had likely slowed down the gunman and prevented an even higher death toll.

The package of executive and legislative initiatives that President Obama unveiled Jan. 16 includes incentives for schools to hire resource officers and the creation of model emergency-response plans for schools, houses of worship, and institutions of higher education. But, while major parts of the president’s plan face tough scrutiny in Congress, much of the action on issues related to school safety will continue to come from districts and their communities.

Posses for Schools

One of the more high-profile responses to the Newtown shootings is taking place in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Sheriff Joe Arpaio is stationing 500 armed volunteers, who serve as members of a posse originally convened to tackle other issues, to patrol outside schools in and around Phoenix as a line of defense against potential gunmen.

The dramatic action is meant in part to be a temporary show of force. Mr. Arpaio said his intention is for the posse to remain in place through the end of the school year. The uniformed volunteers will be supervised by deputies via radio or phone, and they cannot make arrests without a deputy sheriff’s direction.

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, discusses proposals to reduce gun violence.

“I want everyone to know about it for the deterrence effect,” the sheriff said.

In Orlando, Fla., Orange County commissioners quickly found the money to cover the cost of ensuring that 78 elementary schools have their own full-time school resource deputies.

The commissioners said the county sheriff’s office could spend up to $3 million through the end of the school year to pay deputies, who now split their time among as many as four elementary schools, to spend a full day at every elementary school in unincorporated sections of the county. The county’s middle and high schools already have dedicated school resource officers.

Another indicator of a surge in police presence at schools: “We’ve got more trainings scheduled around this time of year than I can ever remember,” said Kevin Quinn, the president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala.

Upon request and for a fee, his organization provides basic and advanced training of school resource officers as well as training specifically in handling active-shooter cases. In coming weeks, training sessions are scheduled in Seymour, Ind.; Leominster, Mass.; and Frisco, Texas, among other places.

Having a law-enforcement background alone isn’t enough to be a school resource officer, said Mr. Quinn, who works for the Chandler, Ariz., police department. Such officers, he said, are intended to be a positive influence on campus; a resource for students, staff members, and parents; and confidants for students who may offer information to prevent incidents from happening.

“You’re not just there waiting for something bad to happen,” he said.

Comfort and Criticism

Beefing up the police presence or empowering school police to carry weapons is reassuring for some parents and administrators.

The superintendent of the 7,500-student Butler school district in western Pennsylvania, for example, spent the weekend after the Newtown shootings on the phone, making arrangements to speed the implementation of a school board vote four days before the shootings to allow the district’s school police officers to carry weapons at its 11 elementary schools.

“We were going to take several months to work out the policies and procedures,” Superintendent Michael Strutt said.

That suddenly seemed like an eternity.

In his district, even before the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., secondary schools were fitted with metal detectors. The elementary schools added them about four years ago, mostly for adults coming to campus, but 4th through 6th graders walk through them every day, too.

The armed, dedicated officers at the elementary schools will cost the district about $100,000 for the remainder of the school year.

“It makes you wonder, ‘What if?’” Mr. Strutt said. “There’s nothing special about us that it couldn’t happen here. Do you roll the dice and hope nothing happens, or do you take proactive measures?”

But the new focus on armed school resource officers has critics.

Schools should consider the cost, research that shows the presence of armed guards can make students feel less safe, and the intensive training even a law-enforcement officer would need to respond to a gunman in a school, a statement from the National Association of School Psychologists advises.

The Bethesda, Md.-based organization notes that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s School-Associated Violent Death Study for the 2009-10 school year found that the chance of someone 5 to 18 years old being the victim of a homicide at school, on the way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was one in 2.5 million.

Fourth grader Danny Utz exits a closet after a lockdown drill at St. Bernard School in New Washington, Ohio, last week.

“While any student death deserves extraordinary consideration, providing armed security in each school for the sole purpose of responding to violent crises would be an inefficient use of valuable resources and personnel, and further sends a message to students that there is in fact a risk worthy of such measures even in the absence of such risk,” the group says.

But results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Jan. 14 found that 55 percent of the 1,001 randomly selected adults surveyed favored a National Rifle Association proposal to place armed police or trained security guards at the nation’s 100,000 schools. Adults with children at home were more likely than those without to want armed guards at schools.

Arming Staff

Some districts are exploring a more controversial option: cutting out the armed guards, but instead providing weapons for some members of their own staffs—including janitors in one rural Ohio district.

In at least two states, teachers and other school staff are being offered the chance to learn how to use weapons and act as first responders by gun-advocacy groups.

“We owe it to teachers to do something more than let them die when they step in front of a killer,” said Jim Irvine, the president of the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, in Delaware, Ohio. “Shooting him is the fastest thing to do.”

His organization will pay to train about two dozen school personnel whose districts allow them to carry concealed weapons in how to respond to an active shooter on campus. More than 1,100 people have applied for one of those training slots. The three-day session, which will be held this spring, will also teach attendees how to deal with major wounds, such as a hole in the chest cavity.

“We can save lives by not having the shooting event take place,” Mr. Irvine said, “by keeping it on the outside of the school, by putting a gun in the hands of a trained administrator or teacher, by stopping the bleeding.

“We have to look at this and say: ‘You have to do everything you can to save lives. Nothing’s going to work all the time. I want layers of protection.’”

Teachers have been offered free concealed-weapons courses in Utah for more than a decade, said Clark Aposhian, an instructor with FairWarning Firearm Training and a chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, in Salt Lake City. After the Newtown shootings, the organization quickly organized an extra session for 2012 on Dec. 27 and 200 people attended.

“From talking with them, they felt helpless,” Mr. Aposhian said. “So they felt that they wanted to look into another option, whether it be a firearm or not.”

Teachers in his courses aren’t taught to seek out shooters, but if they are cornered by one after taking other safety and security measures, if they are carrying a concealed weapon—which is allowed for school personnel who have concealed-weapons permits in Utah. “They have that one last option.”

Beyond Weapons

Not all the post-Newtown action is about guards or guns, however.

With money from wrapping-paper sales already intended for new whiteboards, the Tanglewood Elementary PTA in North Carolina has appealed to local government agencies in Lumberton for the $5,000 needed to add security cameras, restrict entry into the school, and other measures for the 580-student K-4 school.

The parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary have come together to call for a national dialogue to help prevent similar violence. Their group, Sandy Hook Promise, hasn’t suggested specific policy changes, but the members are urging the nation to have open-minded discussions about guns, mental health, and safety at school and other public places.

“I do not want to be someone sharing my experience and consoling another parent next time. I do not want there to be a next time,” said Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan died Dec. 14.

Also in Connecticut, teachers are banding together to provide a support network to deal with the aftereffects of the Sandy Hook shootings—and future tragedies. Within a couple of weeks of the Newtown shootings, the AFT Connecticut, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has created a hotline for members staffed with other teachers to provide an instant calm—from someone who may understand their position differently from how a counselor would.

“We don’t want them to get emotionally overwhelmed, call down to the office and say, ‘I’ve got to go home,’ and leave and walk out the door,” said Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the Rocky Hill, Conn.-based organization. “We want to let people know: ‘You’re not crazy to feel that way. ... We’re still here for you.’”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2013 edition of Education Week as Nation, Districts Step Up Safety

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