Tracy Warner — Panicked policy won’t help schools


After the Newtown, Conn., massacre, anxious parents called the Eastmont School District and asked if there were plans to post armed guards at every school door. Imagine that — the district like any other, has dozens, perhaps hundreds of school entrances used by thousands of children day in and out. Are our children facing such risks that we should turn every school into a fortress? Would they be safer if we did?

School security is naturally a prime topic. We should expect that. We should expect parents to be concerned. What we should avoid is policy driven by panic.

Overreact, and much can be wasted without adding safety. The school culture and atmosphere is degraded. Students learn to live with a heightened sense of danger and insecurity, falsely, because the genuine danger is still remote.

A survey of local districts by The World’s Christine Pratt showed their reaction to Newtown is reasoned and pragmatic. Schools are rightly reviewing their emergency plans and procedures, updating training, taking practical precautions, but not calling in troops.

Elsewhere, the response is not so measured. In December, California Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced a bill to let states deploy National Guard troops to schools. “Is it not part of the national defense to make sure that your children are safe?” said Boxer. “… We must keep our schools safe by utilizing all of the law enforcement tools at our disposal.”

Every tool at our disposal apparently includes soldiers patrolling the perimeter of elementary schools. The schoolyard is treated as a potential battleground. Boxer’s idea is not so much different than the proposal by the National Rifle Association.

In December it urged Congress to “act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation” by the end of January. That proposal was immediately criticized far more harshly than Boxer’s proposed troop movements. The NRA calls it the National Model School Shield Program, and proposes training and arming retired police officers and volunteers to stand guard.

President Obama, in his just-released plans in reaction to Newtown, proposes funding for 1,000 new school resource officers and school counselors. A school resource officer is an armed, on-duty police officer, specially trained and assigned to schools. They are nothing new. Federal appropriations have supported them in the thousands since the Clinton administration. Local school districts have or have had them, and those without are considering the option.

Obama wants up to 1,000 more, which is a relatively small number considering there are 99,000 schools in the United States and until a few years ago there were nearly 15,000 school resource officers already in them. Critics say school resource officers are expensive, divert law enforcement efforts from more serious concerns, and don’t much improve student safety. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California noted they didn’t help at Columbine High School. “There were two armed law enforcement officers at that campus, and you see what happened — 15 dead,” she said.

Beyond armed patrols, electronics are enticing. There will be new funding for surveillance cameras and the like. Boxer wants more airport-style metal detectors. Schools have proposed measures like microchipped badges to track and catalog students and special entrance scanners matching students to their database. Schools could be made much like small prisons. Newtown had a buzz-open school door, which is an increasingly popular option that didn’t work.

The points to remember are, mass school shootings are horrific, but very rare; and so far there are no practical security measures that seem able to stop them. Criminologist James Alan Fox, an expert on mass shootings, said this in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Most security measures will serve only as a minor inconvenience for those who are dead set on mass murder. If anything, excessive security and a fortress-like environment serve as a constant reminder of danger and vulnerability.”

Tracy Warner’s column appears in the Wenatchee World Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at warner@wenatcheeworld.com or 665-1163.