I’ve been watching with great interest the political posturing of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Obama administration since December’s tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Now it’s my turn to weigh in on the issue.
Both sides have proposed putting school resource officers (in Obama’s case) or armed guards (in the NRA’s case) in K-12 schools. Although both sides’ proposals have merit, both are also flawed.
White House Plan Doesn't Provide Enough Funding
Obama’s plan calls for $150 million so that school districts and law enforcement agencies can hire SROs, school psychologists, social workers and counselors. Those funds could also be used for schools to upgrade security equipment, upgrade emergency plans and train teachers and staff. It also calls for $30 million one-time grants to help school districts develop and implement emergency plans and $50 million for teacher and staff training, along with another $155 million for mental health services and school/police partnerships.
Although I applaud the president’s recommendation to better finance school security and campus crime prevention efforts, the amount he’s suggesting is paltry considering the magnitude of the problem and the number of K-12 schools in America. Also, many of the school protection professionals I've talked to are worried that this could be a one-time program that will vanish in a couple of years once the memory of Sandy Hook fades.
I like the fact that the president’s plan calls for SROs rather than just guards with guns. SROs, unlike most armed guards and traditional police officers, receive specialized training and have the appropriate demeanor to work with school children, teachers and administrators effectively.
NRA Armed Guard Proposal Is Dangerous
The NRA’s proposal, which includes the training of armed guards, does not indicate that the training they provide would be of SRO-caliber. If the NRA’s proposal could be revised so that the armed guards actually become trained SROs, I could get behind that part of their proposal. The last thing we need on a school campus is a "good guy with a gun" who doesn’t understand children, treats them like common criminals and traumatizes them unnecessarily. That’s a tragedy (and lawsuit) waiting to happen.
The NRA could help address the funding and sustainability issues in Obama’s plan by using its considerable financial resources to help pay for SROs and their ongoing training. Additionally, I would hope the NRA would abandon its proposed "solution" for mental health, which is incredibly inappropriate. Instead, they should agree to help pay for the school psychologists, social workers and counselors proposed by the White House, since many school shooters are troubled students.
It remains to be seen whether or not the NRA would be willing to help contribute the millions, even billions, of dollars it would take to improve school mental health services and adequately train and screen SROs for every K-12 campus in America. If they are truly serious about securing U.S. schools, they must be willing to dig deep into their own pockets. They are one of, if not the most, well-funded and powerful lobbying organizations in America. If they are not willing to put a significant amount of their own skin in the game, then their proposed “National School Shield” program is nothing more than a self-serving PR campaign.
I suppose I could say the same thing about the Obama plan. For it to have teeth, I would want to see a program from the administration that is properly funded and lasting at least 5 years... and preferably 7 to 10 years.
Fortunately, it appears as though the state and local governments are looking to pick up some of the slack left by the Federal government. For example, the Virginia Governor's Taskforce is recommending more funding for SROs, and Texas lawmakers are suggesting a special tax for school security upgrades.
Don't Forget About Building Security
One way American schools could better sustain their security programs is with the development of a national program dedicated to the improvement of campus building security. To the NRA's credit, they did mention security technology and building design in their proposal. Obama's plan mentioned security equipment. However, I have serious doubts that this is really a priority for either side.
I realize the topics of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), visitor management, locks, fences and access control aren’t as sexy as the armed guard/SRO debate, but the return on investment with the installation of these types of solutions is significant and must not be ignored.
For example, during a podcast with my good friend Gary Sigrist, Jr., who was formerly the REMS project coordinator for the South Western City Schools in Ohio, he provided me with some interesting figures regarding the cost of implementing access control in his district. The price tag for each building that installs an access control system is $8,000-$12,000.
Considering it costs a district about $75,000 a year (or more) to hire an SRO (when you take into consideration his or her pay, benefits, patrol vehicle and training), that same district could install access systems in six to nine buildings for the price of one SRO for one year. Additionally, the locks, window glazing and other equipment installed will last for years, even after the funds dry up. The same cannot be said for hiring an SRO, armed guard or traditional police officer.
SROs Have Their Limitations Too
Another key point to consider: what if the SRO is on the opposite side of campus when a gunman attacks? The officer won’t be much help.
Here’s another scenario: what if the SRO doesn’t make it into work the day of a shooting? This is what happened at Taft (Calif.) Union High School in January when a student opened fire in his classroom. (The SRO was snowed in at home. Fortunately, a teacher and administrator were able to persuade the gunman to drop his weapon.) Properly designed and maintained security systems don't take a day off due to inclement weather or illness. The same can be said for buildings incorporating CPTED.
Don’t get me wrong — security equipment and proper building design are not panaceas. I’m also all for schools hiring more SROs. They are a valuable part of a school community because they add so much more to a campus than just being a “good guy with a gun.” Additionally, I favor hiring more school psychologists and counselors. Unarmed security officers are another viable option.
That being said, technology and physical security, (along with the proper policies and training of school staff on lockdowns and evacuations... but I'll leave that for another story), are integral parts of campus security that must not be overlooked by the White House, the NRA or any other school security stakeholder.