I’m a firm believer that well-trained police officers can save lives in any crisis situation—the multiple tragedies we’ve experienced these past few months, from Newtown to Boston, proved this beyond a doubt. And when it comes to protecting our kids against unknown danger, it’s easy to think that more cops and more guns are the answer.
But as a former police chief and recently retired director of the federal program that invested more than $900 million to support school-based police officers, I’m alarmed by the idea that all we need to do to make campuses safer is to place more guns in the hands of people who work at schools.
The presence of firearms does not guarantee safety. A gun is not a magic wand that you simply wave in the air to ward off the presence of evil. Let me tell you about the most important things we can do to keep our schools safe and the most effective role for school police.
Every school should have a comprehensive safety plan that spells out what will happen in times of crisis, as well as what will help keep school safe on an everyday basis. School staff and students should be trained and practice emergency response. Parents and local first responders, such as fire departments and hospitals, also need to know what to expect in case of a school emergency. Police presence is invaluable during times of crisis because they are trained to stay calm and maintain order under chaotic circumstances.
Another area of school safety where police can be helpful is in assessing how to protect schools from intruders. This can involve developing procedures for campus visitors, monitoring entrances and exits, and evaluating how technology such as video cameras or classroom panic buttons can be deployed.
However, school safety strategies can¹t begin and end with crisis response and protecting the perimeter. To prevent violence and create a welcoming and safe environment, schools need to build a culture of trust and respect on campus. Research has shown that schools are safer when they teach positive behavior, set high expectations for students and have consistent ³rules of the road² when it comes to conduct. If students and staff feel they are treated fairly and respected, they are more likely to come forward to report when someone or something seems amiss.
Principles of trust and relationship-building are at the heart of community policing approaches. But what works in neighborhood environments may not be equally successful in schools. That¹s why I believe strongly that school-based police officers should receive additional training in how to work with young people whose minds are still developing and who are often testing the boundaries of authority.
As any parent of an adolescent will tell you, the teen brain is prone to making mistakes and doesn¹t always function in a logical way.
Research on youth violence prevention consistently finds that the presence of caring adults is a key factor in safety. When young people can seek advice from a counselor, teacher, mentor or even a police officer, they are more likely to stay on track for future success.
Budget cuts in recent years have greatly reduced the number of school counselors and psychologists, and I hope decision-makers will prioritize resources for these important people who work hand-in-hand with school-based police officers to keep schools calm and safe.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary shocked and staggered all of us.
The deaths of 20 children and 6 adults would seem to demand action, both immediate and dramatic. Yet, if we are not careful, we will quickly forget that every day in this country, nine children are victims of homicide and suicide, according to the U.S. Attorney General¹s report on children exposed to violence. The deaths of those children seldom generate headlines, but their deaths are no less significant. The best way to honor their lives is to recommit ourselves to their safety not only in every school, but in every community.
Ed’s Note: Bernard K. Melekian is a resident of Santa Barbara the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and the former police chief of Pasadena.