A nation shaken by Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., is wondering what to do to prevent future tragedies. Some gun rights advocates have suggested returning to a time-worn strategy in lieu of gun control: keeping up with the proliferation of arms outside the schoolhouse doors by arming those inside.
If the principal of Sandy Hook had been armed with an M-4 carbine, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) argued on "Fox News Sunday," she could have stopped the tragedy crucial minutes before the police. She could have "take(n) his head off before he [could] kill those precious kids."
It is an argument using the logic of what critics call the "maximum guns" school of thought about preventing violence at schools. Though schools rarely arm teachers themselves, armed police are a frequent sight inside many American schools. But school safety and child psychology experts surveyed by The Huffington Post said there is no guarantee that putting more guns in schools, even in the hands of trained police officers, will stop rampage killings -- and that increased school security could come at the cost of children's well-being.
While attempts at gun control have floundered since 1999, the year of the Columbine school shooting, the federal government has poured more than $811 million into hiring cops for schools. The number of police on campuses has ballooned from around 9,446 in 1997 to 17,000, according to a March 2010 policy brief from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.
The deadly and ever more popular assault rifles widely available for legal purchase, meanwhile, have prompted police to respond with higher-powered weapons of their own. In August, before a public outcry stopped the plan, police in Plainfield, Ill., proposed storing AR-15 assault rifles -- similar to the type that Lanza used -- in secure lockers inside high schools. It was a preventive measure, they said, against a "worst-case scenario."
Bill Bond is one of the few who knows the school shooter scenario firsthand. He was the principal at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., in 1997, when a 14-year-old opened fire on a student prayer group. Bond came out of his office to confront the gunman face-to-face. He said he has no doubts about how that day would have ended if he had done what Gohmert suggests.
The shooter "stood against a wall and shot eight kids and three of them died. That took 12 seconds. It is fast," said Bond, who is now the specialist for school safety for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If he had been running toward the shooter with a weapon in his hands, he believes, he would have been shot. "I was able to take the gun from him, but I believe if I had been armed, I would have been dead."
When a former student killed seven people at a high school in Red Lake, Minn., in 2005, Bond noted, the first target he went for was the unarmed school security guard. And against a gunman with an arsenal like Lanza's, Bond said, even a police officer with a handgun would have had little chance.
Many police officers, on the other hand, claim that while they might not be able to stop a determined shooter's first bullet, they can minimize the scope of a tragedy. Their claims may be supported by the fact that Adam Lanza apparently killed himself, ending his rampage at Sandy Hook, only when he heard police were getting close to the school.
"You may not be able to stop the first [shot]," said Kevin Quinn, a school police officer who is president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. "Even in my own school, where I'm sitting in my office 50 feet from the first door, if someone broke in the front door and fired one shot, I can't stop it."
What cops can do though, he argued, is "attempt to minimize the damages, minimize the casualties ... every second could mean several lives."
In recent years, federal support for a program to put cops in schools has slipped. But it is not clear how the program could have prevented tragedies like the one in Newtown, as elementary schools are rarely a priority for strapped cities and towns. According to the Justice Department, over the lifetime of a federal program that supports local police hiring, only around 1 percent of the officers hired went to work in elementary schools.
Critics, meanwhile, say the loss of school policing programs are nothing to lament. In far too many schools, they say, cops have turned what should be places of learning into semi-militarized environments.
"Singular horrible events like this past week make us all upset, but if we look at the data, it doesn't make sense that that's where we need to beef up security in a very expensive way -- not only financially but also at the cost of our children's feeling of security," said Kenneth Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.
Less than 2 percent of homicides committed against children happen at school, Dodge said. A November 2011 report by the Justice Policy Institute found little correlation between the number of cops at schools and the number of student-reported violent incidents. An article published in the Journal of School Health in 2011, reviewing 15 years of studies of metal detectors at schools, found that there was insufficient evidence to support the conclusion they made schools safer, but plenty to suggest they made students feel more unsafe.
The JPI report argued that police do have another, detrimental effect on the educational environment: They essentially turn every disciplinary offense into a potential crime. And the review of metal detectors found plenty to suggest that they create a climate of fear.
Metal detectors, police officers in hallways, and zero tolerance policies have "been a failure in that they make children anxious, they make schools less welcoming," Dodge said.
Complicating the post-Newtown discussion around cops in schools is that police have said Lanza had "no connection" to Sandy Hook Elementary. He may have chosen to instead target a movie theater or a shopping mall -- like the rampage killers in Aurora, Colo., or Portland, Ore. -- to pursue his deadly ends.
To stop determined shooters from killing children anywhere, Dodge said, "we'd have to put fences up around our school parking lots, and we'd probably have to do the same around shopping malls and parks and everywhere kids go."
That is not necessarily a bad idea, said Quinn of the school police officers' association, who suggested there should be more police everywhere children congregate. "The way things are going now, it sure as heck couldn't hurt," he said.
But Dodge argued for a different path -- one that looks at school safety as a consequence of the larger problems with violence in America. "Isn't it more straightforward to just get rid of the guns?"
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