Over the months, I sat and watched reactions play out in the professional media and social media. I kept my lips (and fingertips) shut. I wasn’t sure how to react. I wasn’t sure what to say. I watched the parade of reactions, assertions, accusations, defenses, speculations, and speeches. None of them seemed right. Most seemed oversimplified, illogical, and belligerent. And the media threw itself on the conflagration like gasoline, building its coverage of the event upon a foundation of juxtaposition and using the word “versus” a lot. Finding the most tactless and extreme spokespersons on every side of the multi-faceted topic attracted viewers I suppose. But it did nothing to foster a workable response to these rare but extreme acts of ultraviolence.
Since that time, several more tragic incidents have occurred and many more near-incidents have been deterred, though certainly not as widely reported as those that come to fruition. After hearing of a couple of close calls, I've finally decided now is the time to share these thoughts, during a time of relative calm – not during the shock and grief of a new tragedy.
People and organizations have made wild remarks about putting armed guards, military or police, in all schools; or fortifying schools against attackers like some institutionalized version of I Am Legend. No thought is given to the economic burden of maintaining such measures, nor to the psychological impact on our children (and teachers) of having to attend a daily reverse prison with armed guards, asking mommy and daddy “should I be scared to go to school?”
I propose something less than the police-state schools proposed by the NRA and something more than an unregulated self-choice method of arming teachers. I think placing police in every school is economically impractical and, we hope, a waste of a highly trained crime-interdiction professional to mostly act as a scarecrow and security guard.*
A quick Google search turns up some suggestion that there are as many as 99,000 public education institutions in America (kindergarten through college graduate schools). If, in a given year, you had "school shootings" in just one percent of schools, that would be 990 events. Roughly three per day. Although the media scours the country to present us with plenty of horror, the toll is far short of three per day. We are dealing with a very, very small number of incidents, calling into question the necessity, wisdom, and cost of altering society to try to reduce the number of incidents to absolute zero (which I believe is impossible). This is the classic "zero-to-infinity" problem. On any given day, in any given school, the chances of a school shooting are almost zero. But if it occurs, the consequences are infinite - so horrible it shakes the nation and motivates scrambling knee-jerk legislation at the highest levels and a willingness to relinquish personal liberties for an illusion of heightened safety.
Despite what may be a copycat wave we are experiencing right now, school shootings are pretty rare. So the cost and resource drain of placing at least 99,000 police officers into our schools (obviously big schools and campuses need more than one) seems to be overkill. It would be similar to maintaining our peak nuclear arsenal after the demise of the USSR. Remember the widespread demand for undercover sky marshals on every plane after September 11? After a while we wondered how many flights really had armed sky marshals on board. It was admitted not all – rather a random sampling such that terrorists would be deterred by the possibility. Now, in 2013, I wonder how many flights have sky marshals. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was none. I don’t hear anyone still actively asking the question.
Even Newtown, Connecticut residents, on April 23, 2013, balked at increasing the municipal budget to hire additional police and unarmed security guards for the town’s seven schools. [article here] That vote took place on the very same day that Newtown officers visited Maine to speak at the Augusta Civic Center for the 5th Annual Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference. Ironically, their top recommendation for protecting schools was a fully trained school resource officer in every school. [article here]
Increasing this burden, I argue that any place with uniformed guards would need at least two, stationed in different locations, to overcome the element of surprise. Because on the one day in a guard’s ten-year tenure when the shooter walks up, it is likely that the first guard will be complacent from years of boring days and will be the first victim. A second guard elsewhere in the school will perhaps hear the shot and have time to switch to fight mode.
At the other end of the spectrum is the near-vigilante, Wild West kind of approach, saying to teachers and/or administrators, “Okay, whoever wants to carry a gun at school, go ahead.” Whoa! Gun owners, like drivers, come in all levels of ability and all levels of vanity about their own skills. Many teachers and professors (and members of any cross-section of the populace) have no business wielding a gun in a public setting. Even the concealed weapon licensing programs in some states require only a paltry level of weapons proficiency, law, and safety knowledge.
So, who does society accept standing around a school with a gun? Who are we comfortable with? Who are we not shocked to see standing in the hallway with an openly displayed deadly weapon, fully loaded and ready to deploy within a second? Well, the aforementioned police. Why are we comfortable with that?**
We accept police carrying firearms in all environments because we at least believe that they have had a criminal background check, analysis of their character and fitness, psychological evaluation, education and training, and have physical fitness level necessary to deploy their weapon and keep it from being taken from them by force and used against them. This training, at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy takes about 720 hours over 18 weeks. The full curriculum is here: http://www.maine.gov/dps/mcja/training/basiclaw/curriculum.htm
Well, what if you took just those aspects of this training related specifically to firearms training, tactics, and emergency management, and offered an optional certification program to teachers, administrators, education majors, and college professors to become trained as “School Security Specialists”? The curriculum and training would NOT include how to write effective police reports, how to apprehend suspects, how to arrest, how to conduct a safe traffic stop, how to frisk people, how to search for drugs, how to recognize intoxication and drug use, or what constitutes a crime and when to intervene. Perhaps, in the place of the criminal justice and patrol aspects of the curriculum, you would add training specifically focusing on prior school shootings, mistakes made, and develop tactics and plans for such scenarios. And there would be ongoing training and practice to maintain the certification - continuing education like that in many professions - including a lot of firearms and tactical practice under conditions mimicking the stress of a real-life attack on a school. The curriculum and ongoing training ought to be a uniform national standard.
In their eventual jobs these graduates would primarily be teachers, not cops. They would not intervene with firepower to stop a car burglary, or a theft of a computer, or embezzlement. They would not search for drugs or bust kids for alcohol violations. All that would be handled with a phone call to the full-time police. The school security officers’ only purpose would be to return fire in the event of a school shooting situation, with a goal to stop, delay, suppress, and obfuscate the attacker until the attacker was disabled or dead, or until a full police force could arrive. The local police would know which teachers in the school were the security officers so as to reduce the risk of arriving on the scene and mistaking the security officers for the assailants.*** Perhaps they’d have some kind of badge to display to the police to identify their role when the cops arrived. The school security officers and the police would develop plans for coordinated response to school violence incidents.
The graduates could expect, with this certification, to command a higher salary and to be more marketable as employees. It will take some years, of course, before there is a pool of individuals large enough to provide trained personnel to all 99,000 schools. Any sustainable rational solution will take longer than knee-jerk panaceas. Additionally, may institutions will choose not to hire any such security specialists.
Once such a body of such educators exists, each individual school, school district, university, or college can make their own decision about whether to hire such people, pay them more, how many to hire, etc. based upon the infinite variables of each location, including school size, demographics, attitude of the parents and community, and more. Essentially, each community can then balance the risks of the zero-to-infinity problem for themselves, but have on the table a reasonably affordable, reasonably safe method of employing armed protection for our educational institutions, which are salient targets essentially because they are places where large groups of vulnerable people congregate regularly on a predictable schedule. And during the 99.9% of school hours that are peaceful and unremarkable, you'd still have a productive educator giving your children your money's worth.
None of this will reduce the number of school shootings to zero. But perhaps it is a balanced, practical, and sustainable approach to guarding against the infinite consequences of the terrible acts of the insane, the impassioned, and the wicked directed at our educational institutions. This proposal is not meant to be exclusive. By all means, effort needs to be made to keep weapons out of the hands of nuts and mental health care (like health care generally) needs a lot of work. And more needs to be done to rehabilitate troubled and broken American families. And I do believe that the extreme violence of a lot modern movies and video games (even though I enjoy some of them) is more than necessary to convey creative expression and, if watched repeatedly by a marginalized, unbalanced person, might give them the kernel of a very bad idea.
This proposal is only for a system of last resort, when all the other measures (should we responsibly implement them) have still failed. This also does not address the problem of other public places of gathering - restaurants, movie theaters, malls, etc., which are beyond the scope of this article.
After hours of driving around thinking on this in idle moments, and watching the scene in the mornings after dropping my daughters off at their junior high and high schools, and after considering my wife’s role as a high school teacher and what could be done that might offer me any increased sense of security - well, that’s the best I’ve got.
*There are those who are completely dismissive of the idea of armed security in schools. They employ an illogical argument, stating, “Well, there was an armed guard (or police) at Columbine. And at Virginia Tech.” Well, that led me to Google up those incidents. True. And the armed guards either fired and missed the killer, or were perhaps not persistent enough when their target passed from their view. But if that argument were applied on a larger scope it would lead to the conclusion that because there was one successful murder yesterday, armed police are useless, and therefore we should disband all of our armed police departments because they obviously can’t stop killings. My retort is that perhaps those police/guards should have spent more time practicing - or that sometimes you’re just stuck taking a shot with a pistol from 50 yards away, and that’s a tough shot. But that's not a rational reason not to try.
**This goes to the NRA’s swaggering cowboy statement, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I can just hear that in John Wayne’s voice. There was, of course, a reflexive outcry over that remark - just because of who it came from, and because the timing and tone of it was tactless. Again, the Columbine and Virginia Tech failures of “good guys” were pointed to as proving this statement untrue. And yet, if you or I saw a “bad guy with a gun” lurking around the school, or our yard, or your neighbors’ yard, or the supermarket, who ya gonna call? Not Ghostbusters (good guys, but no guns). You'd call the police (good guys with guns). And in fact, in a recent presentation in Maine, Newtown police officers essentially echoed this, making their top recommendation for protecting American schools a fully trained school resource [police] officer in every one. (cited above) Further, our nation’s self-defense laws are generally structured in this way, permitting law-abiding citizens (good guys) to employ deadly force only in the face of threatened deadly force (or other life-threatening actions) by criminals (bad guys). I therefore find the basic premise sound, and it is the underlying assumption behind any proposals to install police or even soldiers in school settings. I feel my proposal is a more reasonable and affordable approach.
***Whether students, parents, and the general public would be privy to the identity of the school security specialists, and whether the security officers’ weapons would be carried openly or concealed, is a matter about which I have not yet formed a conclusion. As a friend of mine expressed it, “Why does Mr. Smith always wear a sport-coat?”