Do armed guards really make schools safer?

In the wake of a tragedy like Newtown, there’s an understandable impulse to fight fire with fire.   To fortify schools with fences, barbed wire and metal detectors.  To call for more police officers and even suggest that teachers and principals should carry weapons alongside their lesson plans.  To do anything that could protect our children from the possibility of another massacre.


The coming weeks will bring a national debate and recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force about the best ways to keep schools and communities safe, and the topic of school police is sure to be discussed.   But before we rush to invest in more security for schools, let’s ask and answer a basic question:  Do armed guards really make schools safer?


Police officers on school campuses are not new.  The first school resource officers, as they are often called, became part of Michigan schools in the 1950s.  The real growth in school police came in the 1990s and accelerated after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, with the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) In Schools Program spending $905 million to pay the salaries of school police and other safety costs. The National School Resource Officers Association says that school-based policing is the fastest-growing area of law enforcement.


Today there are some 23,200 schools — about one-third of all public schools — with armed security staff, according to 2009-10 data.  These are sworn officers who are often part of local police or sheriff’s departments.   Additionally, many large school districts operate their own police departments, with the Los Angeles Unified School District having the largest such force in the nation with more than 350 officers.


Despite the growing number of school police officers, research that I and others have conducted has been inconclusive about whether having armed security on campus improves safety.   While Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t have an armed guard, Columbine High School did and so did Virginia Tech.   In fact, an armed campus guard was a victim in the most recent shooting at Virginia Tech in December 2011 and armed members of the military were not able to prevent the shootings at Ft. Hood.  The mere presence of armed guards does not guarantee public safety.


While we don’t know whether school police make schools safer, we do know that having them on campus means more young people are being charged with crimes. Police are not typically trained in youth development and child psychology and how to best respond to misconduct, sometimes leading to an escalation of conflict on campuses and charges being filed for misbehavior that used to be handled by the principal or a school counselor.  One study found that campuses with school resource officers had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an officer, even when accounting for school poverty.  And in Los Angeles,  in the last three years school police issued 33,000 tickets to young people that required them to go to court – with 40% of those tickets going to kids younger than 14.


There is certainly an important need for school security, and law enforcement has a role to play.  Police understand how to assess threats and respond to emergencies.  They can advise in how to create safe but welcoming designs for school campuses.   They can also be a deterrent – a uniform or a squad car tends to make most of us straighten up a bit when we see them.


However, solutions to school safety don’t lie exclusively with law enforcement, as a coalition of more than 100 respected researchers, mental health experts and education organizations said in a joint statement this week.  Their recommendations:  more mental health services and threat assessment teams in every school and community as an early warning system for recognizing people who need help.   They also called for better coordination across mental health, law enforcement and health care agencies to help people in crisis.


The national debate on school and community safety will soon turn to dollars and cents.  What should we invest in and at what cost, especially at a time when education budgets are so limited?  California has regularly ranked at or near the bottom among the states in the number of counselors per student, and school psychologists are even rarer, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 4,500 for the state’s 6.2 million public school students, a recent Ed Source report said.


The average salary of a school police officer and a school counselor are nearly identical — about $55,000 a year – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


In the wake of Newtown, let’s invest in approaches that prevent violence by helping young people in need — not just strategies aimed at stopping the next gunman in the parking lot.

Ed’s Note: Barbara Raymond is the Director of Schools & Neighborhoods policy for The California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation.  Her area of expertise is violence prevention and she is the author of multiple publications on this topic, including  a U.S. Department of Justice Department guide on assigning police officers in schools.




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