On Dec. 21, on the heels of the Newtown/Sandy Hook tragedy, the National Rifle Association called for the placement of an armed police officer in every school in the country.
On March 27, the Gloucester School Committee will hold a public hearing on just this issue. The request for a public hearing calls for the funding and placing of armed police officers in each of our schools.
There are three questions for the district and the committee, that come from this communication and from the larger call for armed guards in all schools. How safe would such a move keep students? Would it be economically feasible? And, how would it alter student life?
Unspeakably horrific events such as what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School have a deep emotional effect on all of us. The questions raised steer us toward a consideration of what can be done to minimize the possibility of such events from occurring. Yet, while shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school-associated homicides have stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s “School Associated Violent Death Study,” less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. The CDC also states that there is approximately one homicide or suicide of a school-age youth at school per 2.7 million students.
The presence of an armed individual in a school has rarely been a factor in putting an end to a tragic event. An editorial in the New York Times, dated Dec. 21, 2012, states that, in the 62 mass-murder cases that have occurred over the last 30 years, not one has been stopped by an armed individual. It is common knowledge that a sheriff’s deputy was at Columbine High School in 1999, and fired at one of the two killers while 11 of their 13 victims were still alive. He missed four times.
In 2010, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing published a paper entitled Assigning Police Officers to Schools. The guide states the following about research on school resource officers. “... Despite their popularity, few systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of SROs exist.”
This lack of data has a particular effect on knowing with certainty which SRO activities are most effective. For example, meeting with students each day is not directly tied to a safety goal. However, meeting certain students — those who tend to be involved in specific safety problems — and discussing specific problems with them, such as the services they might need or the reasons that the problems exist can have a direct effect on school safety.
The same paper describes the types of typical benefits that school administrators seek from having police officers working in their schools. In their simplest form, these include:
Increased safety in and around the schools;
Increased perceptions of safety;
Improved police call response times;
Reductions in truancy;
Fewer distractions from their teachers’ teaching and class preparation duties.
But, again, “Most existing SRO research does not tell us if these hoped-for benefits are achieved. SRO research tends to be descriptive in nature—it characterizes what SRO’s do on a daily basis, typical traits of SRO’s, and the perceptions of people involved with SRO programs.”
Regarding overall safety measures, studies have found that more severe and pervasive security practices can actually result in increased violence and disorder. Conversely, the most effective security practices are based on a firm but positive school climate in which students are cognizant of school rules as well as consequences for infractions.
The article goes further in its assessment of the presence of police and school resource officers in schools: “The benefits of security guards, however, are widely contested in the literature. While some sources have argued that school officers serve as a deterrent to violence, others are more skeptical and warn against potentially detrimental effects on students.”
Glenn Muschert, Associate Professor of Sociology at Miami University, echoes this assertion by stating that “… things like cameras, metal detectors, and police in schools are visible measures that school administrators can point to in order to show parents what they’re doing to ensure safety in the schools…but if they create a feeling among students that they’re in a lockdown zone, that might actually undermine the primary goal of their education.”
Next week, I’ll outline what we can do to protect our children.
Richard Safier is superintendent of the Gloucester Public Schools.