Are Armed Guards In Schools The Answer?
Here's what it's like for urban students already living under heightened security
Kanita Wilson, 14, had always been a bit nervous around police officers - even when she had done nothing wrong. When she was a little girl, the police were called to settle a domestic dispute between her divorced parents.
Their uniforms, badges and especially the guns in their holsters scared her.
“There were these big men around suddenly,” Wilson recalled. “I didn’t know what to do or what they were going to do.”
Wilson, now a freshman at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., isn’t intimidated by the police anymore. When she goes to school, she passes through a metal detector, shows an identification card with a bar code and sees armed guards. And, she’s been dealing with this kind of heightened security since she was a sixth grader at Alice Deal Middle School.
Adam Lanza's massacre of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last month has sparked a heated national conversation about introducing armed security in more schools.
At the National Rifle Association’s first press conference after the shooting, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the solution to making students safe is not an increase in gun regulation, but more guns in the hands of the “good guys.”
“If we have a police officer in that school, a good guy, that if some horrible monster tries to do something, will be there to protect them," he said.
A police presence in school, especially in urban areas, has been something that students like Wilson have been accustomed to for nearly two decades.
But as many school experts and civil libertarians work to reduce police presence in big city schools, some worry that the Sandy Hook tragedy will make other small town districts catch up to their urban counterparts.
Students in Marlboro Township, N.J., returned from Christmas break to find armed police officers at their school. Police officers were present during arrival and dismissal times at each public and private school, the first school district in the country to take that step. Totowa School District in Passaic County, N.J., followed suit.
These aren’t the only school districts working to heighten security.
Armed police officers are posted at schools in Greeneville, Tenn. In Utah, teachers received weapons training, and last week, a local council in the New York borough of Staten Island passed an historic, and largely symbolic, vote recommending retired cops serve as armed security in its schools.
Michael Reilly, a father of three on the Community Education Council, proposed video cameras and buzzer systems as well as 300 to 500 retired plainclothes officers carrying concealed weapons.
While the councils can only make suggestions, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott dismissed the idea, seeing it as an overreaction to the shooting.
Some argue that making school security a police matter undermines what schools are trying to teach: guns are not the answer.
“This push for armed guards in the suburban areas, it’s what I call reacting to the boogeyman,” said Harry Leonadartos, a principal at Clarkstown High School North, 25 miles north of Manhattan. “Part of the escape to the suburbs was the idea that you were escaping from the crime-ridden urban neighborhoods and to the quiet, sometimes gated, communities of the suburbs.”
Still, Reilly, a former lieutenant for the New York Police Department, sees nothing wrong with retired officers patrolling the halls in nice suits with no weapons in sight, similar to an air marshal who flies incognito. He said he wants to leave as small a footprint as possible.
“This is not a call to arms,” he said, wanting to distance himself from what he thought were incendiary comments from LaPierre. “This is a way to take the necessary precautions to help prevent a tragedy here in New York.
“This isn’t about my kids, or the 60,000 kids who go to school here in Staten Island, but the 1.1 million kids in schools across New York City. It’s to make them all safe whatever neighborhood they’re from.”
In February 1992, 15-year-old Khalil Sumpter shot and killed Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and Ian Moore, 17, in a hallway at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn.
While the shooting took place under Mayor David Dinkins, it led to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani transferring authority of school safety from the city’s Department of Education to the NYPD in 1998. NYPD’s School Safety Division consists of agents who are unarmed but have arresting power.
There is a separate patrol that is armed, which responds to emergencies, but not one stationed at any one school.
Since then, the number of agents assigned to New York schools has burgeoned to 5,200. On its own, it would be the fifth largest police department in the country--bigger than Detroit, Boston and Las Vegas.
The creation of the School Safety Division has been a success, officials said. Since the 2000-2001 school year, major crime has declined 48 percent and violent crime in schools has gone down 30 percent, according to Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education.
At his school, Leonardatos has a school resource officer who is trained to work with teachers, administrators and students. The resource officer is a liaison between the school, community and police. The emphasis is on communication, Leonardatos said, not strip searches and arrests.
Still, when asked if she’d like to attend a school without the metal detectors, identification cards and armed police officers, Kanita Wilson paused. It had never crossed her mind. She didn’t realize schools like that existed.