School Climate & Safety

Schools Wrestle With Issue of Armed Guards

By Andrew Trotter — April 05, 2005 7 min read
Dustan Harris hugs his girlfriend, LeeAnn Grant, an unarmed security guard at Red Lake High School, where the other guard was among seven killed by a student gunman on March 23.
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Among the what-ifs being asked after the March 21 shootings at Red Lake High School is one with uncomfortable implications for many school leaders: What if the two security guards posted near the Minnesota school’s entrance had been armed when the 16-year-old student gunman entered? Would the carnage by Jeff Weise that claimed the lives of one guard, a teacher, and five other students have been averted?

Interest in the complex question of whether schools need armed personnel is high among administrators, according to Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit group based in Westlake Village, Calif., that advises and trains districts in security practices.

“The issue of firearms keeps coming up,” Mr. Stephens said. Nationwide, he said, “it really is a mixed bag whether or not school security personnel are armed or unarmed.”

Sandra S. Froman, the first vice president of the National Rifle Association, helped fuel the debate when she told the Associated Press on March 25 that all options should be considered to prevent incidents such as the shootings at Red Lake High, including allowing teachers to have guns in the classroom.

Options Debated

“I’m not saying that that means every teacher should have a gun or not, but what I am saying is we need to look at all the options, at what will truly protect the students,” Ms. Froman, who is expected to be elected the president of the influential gun-rights organization later this month, was quoted as saying.

“No gun law, no policy that you could implement now or that was already implemented, I think, could possibly prevent someone so intent on destruction,” she said, adding that having unarmed guards at Red Lake High “obviously didn’t work.”

The NRA did not respond to a request last week to interview Ms. Froman or another spokesman.

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But Mr. Stephens and other experts cautioned that an emphasis on arming school personnel glosses over many other important school security issues.

“I’m not for arming security guards. There are not enough standards, locally or nationally on how well-trained those people will be,” said Paul Timm, the vice president of RETA Security Inc., a Lombard, Ill.-based consulting firm that advises many school districts.

But “I am always comfortable seeing a sworn officer, who is armed,” on campus, he said, such as the school resource officers, or SROs, that serve some districts under the federal “Community Oriented Policing in Schools” grant program.

Established in 1999, the COPS program awarded $35 million in three-year grants in its latest round, announced in September. The grants help localities pay for some 6,500 police officers across the country, who are hired by local law-enforcement agencies and assigned to schools full time.

The school resource officers follow local policy on carrying firearms, which generally means they carry them.

Mr. Timm noted that even with the grants, many districts cannot afford to have resource officers, and that such officers are just one of a range of security measures that schools should consider.

“I don’t think having an SRO is your foundation, or by any stretch of the imagination the most important piece” of a district’s security plan, he said.

No Guarantee

One of the two unarmed guards at Red Lake High when Mr. Weise arrived last month, Derrick Brun, confronted him, while the other officer, LeeAnn Grant, ran to help students and teachers to safety. Mr. Brun was shot twice by Mr. Weise and died at the scene.

The student gunman was wounded twice by tribal police officers before fatally shooting himself in a classroom with a shotgun, according to a sheriff’s deputy’s account made public last week.

Even the presence of police officers is no guarantee against violence in schools. Several security experts noted that an armed police officer at Columbine High School in the Jefferson County, Colo., district exchanged fire to no avail with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold during their fatal 1999 shooting spree at the school.

Still, some districts are opting for the armed approach.

In the 41,000-student Tulsa, Okla., school district, uniformed guards stationed at all public high schools and middle schools are not police officers, but nonetheless carry firearms, said district spokesman John Hamill. The armed guards, which the school system has used for a decade, are provided currently under a contract with Securitas Security Services USA, the Parsippany, N.J.-based division of a Swedish company.

The 65 guards are equipped with handguns, said Bob Currington, the district security coordinator. The number of guards at schools ranges from one to five, based on the circumstances of each school.

“The firearm is there to protect students from bad guys on the outside, not to use on students,” Mr. Hamill said. To underscore the dangers facing schools today, he cited a campus lockdown during a pawnshop robbery near a school two years ago, and another incident in which a criminal suspect fleeing arrest entered and dashed through an elementary school.

In addition, the district deploys nine school resource officers, underwritten by the federal COPS grants, with each one covering several schools.

The security guards all have earned the standard law-enforcement certification in safe weapons use, according to Mr. Hamill. However, a mishap occurred on the only occasion in the past five years in which a guard has taken out his firearm. In October 2002, according to press reports at the time and Mr. Hamill, a guard outside a Tulsa high school saw an expelled student who appeared to be threatening him with a weapon; the guard fired his pistol; the bullet ricocheted and fragments hit another student in the cheek; no weapon was recovered. The district paid a legal settlement to the injured student and his parents.

That is just the kind of misfortune that some experts fear might happen more often if more districts employed armed guards.

Discussions among school officials and safety experts have centered on children’s safety, with finances taking a back seat. But liability concerns may also weigh against school districts hiring their own armed security personnel, said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

She said municipalities—not districts—appear to bear the responsibility in lawsuits alleging harms committed by school resource officers. But in the case of a security guard hired by the district, “you’re the agency that’s brought the weapon in the school, and you’re liable not just for guns, but for anything they do,” she said, referring to the district.

Focus on Root Causes

Officials in several districts agreed with security and risk-management experts that they were uncomfortable with having any personnel on school campuses with firearms unless they were sworn police officers.

“Having more people armed [on campus]—we don’t think that’s the answer,” said Nat Harrington, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County, Fla., school system.

The 170,000-student district, which suffered the fatal shooting of a teacher by a student in 2000, maintains its own police force to patrol its 165 schools. The sworn officers are armed with 9 mm pistols and have “access to rifles and other weapons if they need it,” Mr. Harrington said.

Since 2000, the district has overhauled its approach to security to address what officials see as the root causes of violence, Mr. Harrington said.

A “plethora” of measures—including a crackdown on bullying and harassment of students, and training of teachers and students to alert administrators to signs of trouble—have led to a “precipitous drop in incidents,” he said.

Schools in Palm Beach County have no metal detectors. “They don’t work; they lull you into the sense that you’re safe,” Mr. Harrington said, adding that the same could be said for armed guards.

Phila. Mulls Choices

Many districts don’t want to have police officers on campus routinely, if they are carrying weapons, because of the dangers of a mishap and the impact on the schools’ learning environment, Mr. Stephens of the National School Safety Center said.

The 214,000-student Philadelphia school system, which has its own unarmed security force that patrols its 300 school buildings, is considering arming at least some of its officers, said Dexter Green, the district’s chief safety officer.

Mr. Green, a former deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia police department, emphasized that the discussion began last September and that no decision had been made about whether to arm any of the officers. The district has 476 sworn police officers, plus another 250 security officers who are hired on a per diem basis. Neither group is armed.

The force, which works closely with the Philadelphia city police, has been effective in reducing crime, even confiscating handguns from students without incident, Mr. Green said.

Still, the district has reported that the city’s high schools had 2,500 “serious incidents” during the last school year, and two murders outside its schools this year, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a quarterly newspaper in the city.

The district is considering whether its permanent officers, possibly starting with 100 retired Philadelphia police officers who are on the school force, should carry handguns after receiving additional training.

“Maybe in some instances some of our people are going to be armed, and some are not,” Mr. Green said.

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