Experts, lawmakers examine ways to make students safer
The nation was brought together in mourning last December when 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at a Connecticut elementary school.
It was the second deadliest shooting in American history, prompting press conferences and policy suggestions aimed at preventing another such massacre. The National Rifle Association made the largest waves when, in response to Sandy Hook, the lobbying group's Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre called for armed police officers posted in every school.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," LaPierre said at a press conference, "is a good guy with a gun."
From armed guards to arming teachers themselves, the question of what can and should be done to better protect students elicits strong responses. What is prudent and feasible remains subject to much debate in legislatures across the country.
South Dakota's state government has been quickest to move on the NRA's suggestion, enacting a law to allow school employees, hired security personnel or volunteers who complete a training program to carry firearms in schools.
Similar bills have been proposed in the Missouri House of Representatives this session. House Bill 70 would allow any teacher or school administrator with a valid concealed carry permit to possess firearms on school grounds without consent of school boards. Another, HB 276, aims to create voluntary "school protection officer" designations that, with completion of a training program and district approval, would allow the "officers" to carry weapons on school grounds and detain anyone he or she believes has violated state laws or school policies.
Dr. Kathleen Nolan, a program associate and lecturer at Princeton University who has extensively studied police presence in schools, disagrees with such proposed legislation.
"It's an irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction to the fear we are all experiencing. I think it's frightening, the idea of putting arms in teachers' hands. First, it's impossible to ensure school personnel have the proper training, but perhaps even more importantly schools personnel and teachers lack the experience. No one knows how they will respond in a situation with a crazed gunman," Nolan said.
The Missouri bills are different from the School Resource Officer program, which currently has about 210 dues-paying members in Missouri and more than 10,000 nationally. SROs are commissioned police officers with additional training in the organization's "triad" of responsibilities: teacher, counselor and law enforcement officer.
"As police officers, we're teachers and we're counselors. The school resource officer puts on different hats and for, say, poverty-stricken kids, we're also that connecting link between them and the Department of Social Services, or the local health department," said Union, Mo. Police Officer Rod Tappe, vice president of the Missouri School Resource Officer Association Board and SRO at the Union R-XI School District.
Mo Cannady, executive director of National Association of School Resource Officers, advocates for SRO or school-based policing programs, "not just something that puts an armed guard in the school."
"We don't feel that is a long-term solution," Cannady said.
"You have buildings filled with lots of children and when you have a situation of a shooter in a building like that, the good guy needs to be more than just a private citizen."
Implementation of an SRO program at schools nationwide is estimated to cost between $2-$3 billion, while in Missouri, where schools are currently underfunded by about $600 million, the estimate is $100 million in added expenses.
Cannady acknowledges cost considerations make an SRO an unrealistic solution for some districts and supports communities being able to make decisions for themselves, as opposed to action by the federal or state government. Both the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Missouri School Boards Associations referred questions to the Missouri Center for Education Safety, a public-private partnership between the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the Office of Homeland Security and MSBA, which shared that sentiment.
"It needs to be a local decision by the school boards and they need to make sure they have good input and have good discussions with public safety officials and teachers and do this with eyes wide open," Executive Director Paul Fennewald said.
The Mexico Public School District currently has two School Resource Officers. One is assigned to the high school and middle school primarily, and one to the elementary buildings. The district pays the City of Mexico a large portion of the officers' overall salaries. The SROs work for the city in the summer when school is not in session.
"I think the idea behind SROs is multi-faceted. Everyone in this day and climate wants to think 'armed security guard,' but truly the SROs are much more than that," said Mexico School District Superintendent Kevin Freeman. "The biggest benefit is the relationship they build with students and being a positive role model."
Freeman said "it would be hard to say no to any positive resource like more SROs." Arming the teachers however, is something the district likely will not support.
"This is a moot point for us as our primary liability insurance carrier would not cover us if we were allowing anyone other than law enforcement to carry a weapon," Freeman said.
Freeman said the biggest change in District 59 since Sandy Hook is heightened awareness.
"We continue to have drills and to train staff in current best practice to mitigate any episode of school violence," Freeman said.
What local schools want to see the state or federal government do regarding school safety issues, Freeman said, is to provide more financial resources.
"I think 'local schools' is a difficult oversimplification. Across the nation, you see all sorts of responses. The only true help the federal government could do would be to provide money for training and staff."
The National Association of School Psychologists issued a report in January advising schools to focus on security solutions such as building entrances, hallway monitoring and better check-in and check-out systems for visitors. It also recommends increasing mental health services and supports in schools, advising a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, one school psychologist for every 500-700 students and one school social worker for every 400 students.
Nolan believes most schools are not meeting those targets and said even those ratios fall short of what is needed, arguing that more attention is needed for "subtle" discipline problems, such as bullying, as well as mental health issues, all of which can be precursors to violence.
"Some forms are subtle and it's apparent that school administrators and teachers are not picking up on how pugnacious this is," she said.
"Students who are alienated and not getting necessary attention and support, with mental health issues going unrecognized, can end up being the shooters," she said.
Freeman said the district's biggest area of need, as far as assistance, is mental health and counseling options.
"Mental health and counseling options are very limited and hard to come by for our students who need this kind of assistance," he said.
The Mexico School District hosts and participates in simulation and/or mock demonstrations, with the help of local law enforcement and emergency assistance at least once a year. Freeman said the SROs do a multitude of things to keep the students, administration and staff safe. They mostly collaborate with principals and teachers in trying to help kids be successful.
Freeman said the district also has its building administrators lock the doors to their schools once school starts, except for the main entrance, and the district is currently pricing buzz-in systems.
A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on violence stated the odds of a person ages 5-18 being victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was 1 in 2.5 million. The last time a Missouri student died in a school shooting was at Parkway South Junior High in 1983, when according to the Associated Press a case of bullying resulted in a murder-suicide.
Since then, hundreds of others have died from other causes, Fennewald said, including lack of working smoke detectors, drinking and driving and lack of seatbelt use.
"Let's take a holistic view of this," he said. "How are our children dying? [...] There are a lot of other things if we want to focus on student safety, things we can do to make our communities safer without putting more resource officers in our schools."
The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.