Is putting armed guards in our schools a good idea?
YES: security personnel are best for preventing future newtowns
OAKLAND, Calif. — When he heard police arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a "gun free zone," Adam Lanza ended his murder spree by killing himself.
Days earlier, in Portland, Ore., Jacob Roberts had slain two at the Clackamas Town Center mall. When a licensed gun owner pointed a pistol at him, Roberts likewise killed himself.
James Holmes murdered 12 at the Aurora Century movie theater in Colorado, another "gun free zone" that prohibited armed security personnel. Holmes surrendered when police showed up.
Rampaging gunmen seek victims at places where they expect no immediate resistance. They continue their evil deeds until they are no longer in control due to the intervention of armed defenders. Then, they typically seek to remain in control by taking their own lives.
The tragic Newtown, Conn., school massacre was instantly politicized by calls to ban "assault weapons" and magazines holding more than 10 cartridges. Violent video games were deplored, but there were no pre-written bills to ban them. Mental illness was a hot topic, but no firm solutions were offered. Increasing police presence at schools was not in the cards during the media-driven frenzy.
Virginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell suggested that not only police, but armed school officials who so chose could be trained to stop aggressors. A loud chorus responded against "shootouts" in schools. Perhaps unopposed executions are better.
For now, consider just increasing the law enforcement presence.
When the NRA's Wayne LaPierre proposed armed security at every school, the media reacted with a tidal wave of derision and contempt. How could anyone dare say that we live in a society where our children need armed police protection, and need it now?
Shall we live in a fantasy world and kid ourselves into thinking that we can simply pass new laws and such tragedies won't happen again?
In the days after Newtown, school authorities nationwide notified parents that police were patrolling schools more often and that security was being tightly monitored.
The Washington Post, openly advocating a gun ban, derided the NRA proposal — a verboten topic, apparently, for the nationwide "conversation." Curiously, the Post then published an article noting that police had stepped up patrols at schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia and that some schools, particularly in D.C., had permanent security guards. Law enforcement presence is focused mostly at urban middle schools and high schools, not at elementary schools — doubtlessly to control drugs and gang violence.
So the issue is not whether armed security personnel should be present at schools — nationwide, some 17,000 sworn officers already serve in schools, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing — but whether their presence should be increased to protect against the inevitable copy-cat killer.
No guarantee exists that the presence of an armed officer would stop the next disaster. But it would give the potential victims a chance.
Remember, the massacre at Columbine High School, a "gun free zone," took place after passage of the federal "assault weapon" ban. The killers didn't use the banned guns; they didn't need them.
Somebody intent on mass murder has many weapons from which to choose: fertilizer-based explosives were used to kill 168 in Oklahoma City; box cutters were the initial weapon used by the 9/11 hijackers who left 2,977 dead.
Murder and mayhem are not abolished by banning possession of selected physical objects by law-abiding individuals. No "conversation" is needed to know that armed security can protect schools, just as they protect courts and other public buildings, airline travelers, banks and even convenience stores.
Stephen P. Halbrook is a research fellow with The Independent Institute.
NO: Expanding mental health services is better than more guns
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The tragedy of Sandy Hook shook our nation to its core. In its wake, we are being urged to accept extreme options to protect the safety of our children. Both the National Rifle Association and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett have called for armed guards in schools. Sen. Barbara Boxer, has introduced legislation that would authorize deployment of the National Guard to protect schools.
This is not the first time that fears of school violence have led to extreme proposals. In the 1980s and early '90s, driven by a fear of youth violence, our nation's schools came to believe there was little choice but to turn to zero tolerance policies that dramatically increased the use of suspension and expulsion for increasingly minor offenses. Twelve years ago, a string of school shootings across the nation led to renewed calls for the expansion of such measures.
As the immediacy of our fears subsided, however, more careful evaluation called into question the basic assumptions of zero tolerance.
A yearlong study commissioned by the American Psychological Association found no evidence that zero tolerance contributes to school safety or improved behavior, and concluded that it worsens racial disparities in school discipline, causes hardship for families and flies in the face of what we know about adolescent development.
Today, the depth of the Sandy Hook tragedy makes it seem almost inevitable that there will be a dramatically increased police presence, perhaps even armed, in our nation's schools. Yet a student of history cannot help but wonder if we are once again being drawn down an ineffective and counterproductive path.
The truth of the matter is that research on the effects of police in schools is extremely thin: We know virtually nothing about whether police in schools can make schools safer.
Indeed, some studies show that increased police presence is likely associated with less safe schools, decreases in student attendance and achievement, and increased arrests for minor misbehavior, and that these effects fall hardest on students of color in low income schools.
If we wish to consider evidence, it is hard to know what to make of calls for armed guards in schools; The proposal is so extreme that no one has ever thought to study it. But the basic premise of the Gun Free Schools Act remains as essential to our children's safety as when it was passed in 1994; Guns do not belong in schools.
What does work? In the wake of Sandy Hook, the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, comprising some of the nation's leading violence prevention experts, outlined a comprehensive and coordinated approach.
They called for programs that include balance, addressing both physical safety and social and emotional supports for students, communication among local agencies to assess the seriousness of threats of violence, connectedness to reintegrate alienated students before they choose violence and support for all students through evidence-based programs that improve the school climate.
Above all, when almost 20 percent of our students in school may experience an emotional or behavioral problem, a dramatic increase in the availability and resources for school mental health services is critical.
Twelve years after Columbine, in the face of an incomprehensible tragedy, we stand once again at a crossroads of violence prevention.
As always, we must do everything in our power to protect our children and school staff from all threats to their safety. But twenty years of experience in school violence prevention has taught us that when we are stampeded by fear into replacing data-driven practices with politically expedient rhetoric, we make our children less safe.
With limited resources, an investment in integrating proven effective programs into a comprehensive plan is our best bet for preserving the safety of our schools.
Russell J. Skiba is a professor of school psychology at Indiana University and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University.
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