Morning Sun
  • Experts, lawmakers examine ways to make students safer after Sandy Hook

  • The nation was brought together in mourning last December when 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at a Connecticut elementary school.

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  • The nation was brought together in mourning last December when 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at a Connecticut elementary school.
    It was the second deadliest shooting in American history, prompting press conferences and policy suggestions aimed at preventing another such massacre. The National Rifle Association made the largest waves when, in response to Sandy Hook, the lobbying group's Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre called for armed police officers posted in every school.
    "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," LaPierre said at a press conference, "is a good guy with a gun."
    From armed guards to arming teachers themselves, the question of what can and should be done to better protect students elicits strong responses. What is prudent and feasible remains subject to much debate in legislatures across the country.
    South Dakota's state government has been quickest to move on the NRA's suggestion, enacting a law to allow school employees, hired security personnel or volunteers who complete a training program to carry firearms in schools.
    Similar bills have been proposed in the Missouri House of Representatives this session. House Bill 70 would allow any teacher or school administrator with a valid concealed carry permit to possess firearms on school grounds without consent of school boards. Another, HB 276, aims to create voluntary "school protection officer" designations that, with completion of a training program and district approval, would allow the "officers" to carry weapons on school grounds and detain anyone he or she believes has violated state laws or school policies.
    Dr. Kathleen Nolan, a program associate and lecturer at Princeton University who has extensively studied police presence in schools, disagrees with such proposed legislation.
    "It's an irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction to the fear we are all experiencing. I think it's frightening, the idea of putting arms in teachers hands. First, it's impossible to ensure school personnel have the proper training, but perhaps even more importantly schools personnel and teachers lack the experience. No one knows how they will respond in a situation with a crazed gunman," Nolan said.
    The Missouri bills are different from the School Resource Officer program, which currently has about 210 dues-paying members in Missouri and more than 10,000 nationally. SROs are commissioned police officers with additional training in the organization's "triad" of responsibilities: teacher, counselor and law enforcement officer.
    "As police officers, we're teachers and we're counselors. The school resource officer puts on different hats and for, say, poverty-stricken kids, we're also that connecting link between them and the Department of Social Services, or the local health department," said Union, Mo. Police Officer Rod Tappe, vice president of the Missouri School Resource Officer Association Board and SRO at the Union R-XI School District.
    Page 2 of 5 - Mo Cannady, executive director of National Association of School Resource Officers, advocates for SRO or school-based policing programs, "not just something that puts an armed guard in the school."
    "We don't feel that is a long-term solution," Cannady said.
    "You have buildings filled with lots of children and when you have a situation of a shooter in a building like that, the good guy needs to be more than just a private citizen."
    Implementation of an SRO program at schools nationwide is estimated to cost between $2-$3 billion, while in Missouri, where schools are currently underfunded by about $600 million, the estimate is $100 million in added expenses.
    Cannady acknowledges cost considerations make an SRO an unrealistic solution for some districts and supports communities being able to make decisions for themselves, as opposed to action by the federal or state government. Both the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Missouri School Boards Associations referred questions to the Missouri Center for Education Safety, a public-private partnership between the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the Office of Homeland Security and MSBA, which shared that sentiment.
    "It needs to be a local decision by the school boards and they need to make sure they have good input and have good discussions with public safety officials and teachers and do this with eyes wide open," Executive Director Paul Fennewald said.
    And, local boards are seeking to do just that.
    Every district in Crawford County currently has at least one SRO, but for most districts that does not provide a constant armed presence in each building.
    USD 246 Northeast recently re-created one SRO position, but Superintendent Greg Gorman said one per building would be better.
    “At one time we had an SRO, then when the grant ran out we no longer had one,” Gorman said.
    Many superintendents in the area mentioned that grants originally funded their SRO programs, but the grants ended and, in many cases, the local districts and sheriff’s department now split the tab.
    “We have one SRO and he rotates through our buildings,” said USD 247 Southeast Superintendent Glenn Fortmayer. He said the sheriff’s department helps pay for some of the time spent monitoring the four buildings. The county also utilizes the officer’s extra time during the summer.
    USD 250 Pittsburg has two officers for six buildings and splits that cost with Crawford County.
    “We have one in the high school and one in the middle school and they also share time with the elementary schools,” said Superintendent Destry Brown.
    USD 249 Frontenac’s campus setup provides what is perhaps the most optimal setup for prompt SRO response.
    “We put one in in January after Sandy Hook,” said Superintendent Dale Slagle. “Right now we feel like we’ve got a pretty good situation because we’re all on one campus.”
    Page 3 of 5 - He said the school and city work together to fund the position.
    Girard has a similar scenario, and USD 248 Superintendent Blaise Bauer said the city and district share the SRO, who covers both buildings.
    “It’s a joint effort by the city and the school,” Bauer said. “It’s worked really well.”
    Every superintendent indicated that it would be optimal to have additional officers if state or federal grants would allow, but most said it would be a challenge to do so through local funds.
    “That’s the problem with grant money. It doesn’t last,” Fortmayer said.
    “If we’re going to be serious about the security of our buildings to that level, the government needs to be serious about funding.”
    Gorman agreed, saying his district wants patrons to feel safe, and it would help if the government would reinstate the grant that paid 75 percent of the cost of an officer.
    “I’ve always thought very strongly it would be nice to have that security there if you had trained peopel who knew what they were doing in the presence of a confrontation,” Bauer said. “If money weren’t an object it woudl be nice to have a couple per site.”
    Even with a desire for additional security, superintendents were unanimous in their dissent toward the idea of arming classroom teachers.
    “I’m opposed to it,” Bauer said. “We can’t have an opened concealed carry in schools.”
    He said schools do need the ability to stop a shooter, but only via authorized personnel.
    “I’d like to see more security measures in schools via people who are trained and prepared to carry a weapon, and the choice woudl be school resource officers,” he said.
    Gorman agreed.
    “I’m not in favor of teachers packing,” Gorman said. “The more firearms you have in a school, the more chance for an accident to happen.”
    “The idea of a gun being in a coatrack is not a good idea,” Slagle said, adding that he would not want to see guns on anyone who wasn’t uniformed and certified.
    “I’m not for that,” Brown agreed, adding that it doesn’t help in overall school safety.
    “Our safest places for kids are at schools, for the most part,” he said.
    Rather, USD 250 is talking with parents and site councils about security measures, including buzzer systems.
    “We’re just trying to take our time and not do a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.
    Fortmayer also voiced his opposition.
    “We’re not going to be going that route,” he said.
    However, he said the discussion is nationwide and if that were to be the government’s solution to security the district might have to come back and discuss it further with the public.
    Page 4 of 5 - He said the district would rather focus on prevention.
    “Our goal right now is to make it very difficult for someone with weapons to enter the school,” Fortmayer said.
    Slagle said his district also had previously taken steps to secure buildings through check-in and to initiate a multi-hazard emergency operations plan, and has added an SRO, purchased radios, upgraded intercom systems and additionally secured entries since.
    Many district actions are right in line with national advice.
    The National Association of School Psychologists issued a report in January advising schools to focus on security solutions such as building entrances, hallway monitoring and better check-in and check-out systems for visitors. It also recommends increasing mental health services and supports in schools, advising a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, one school psychologist for every 500-700 students and one school social worker for every 400 students.
    Nolan believes most schools are not meeting those targets and said even those ratios fall short of what is needed, arguing that more attention is needed for "subtle" discipline problems, such as bullying, as well as mental health issues, all of which can be precursors to violence.
    "Some forms are subtle and it's apparent that school administrators and teachers are not picking up on how pugnacious this is," she said.
    "Students who are alienated and not getting necessary attention and support, with mental health issues going unrecognized, can end up being the shooters," she said.
    Each district does provide counselors, and some also collaborate with area mental health agencies to offer students support through many challenges and situations they face during their school years.
    “It’s important to us to try to be preventative rather than being reactionary,” Brown said of USD 250.
    He said the district has one counselor at each elementary, two at the middle school and three at the high school, and also works with behavioral health intervention staff through the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
    On the other end of the spectrum, the Southeast district faces many needs and has one counselor .
    “We do not have the money to add an elementary counselor back to our staff,” Fortmayer said, adding that the high school counselor has doubled up duties. “He’s stretched so thin, trying to see 700 kids.”
    Fortmayer said the counselor situation is similar to that of an additional SRO, and that it would take an increase of at least two mills to consider funding that position.
    Instead, students learn lessons about bullying and isolation in the classroom.
    “What we’re trying to do is work with our kids and educate our kids to prevent bullying and isolation,” Fortmayer said.
    Slagle said Frontenac provides three counselors, but takes a similar approach.
    Page 5 of 5 - He said teachers are encouraged to really get to know their students and to take threats seriously
    “It’s a bit more of a conscious process,” he said. “Schools have to take it (bullying) more seriously.”
    Bauer said Girard recently took a step to provide separate counselors for the elementary and junior high, which brings the district’s numbers closer in line with NASP recommendations.
    He said the district felt it was an important investment.
    “This is just money we’ve taken out of the general fund budget to have an additional staff member,” he said.
    Gorman said Northeast offers counselors in both buildings and has school programs that involve Crawford County Mental Health, but questioned whether even the best efforts could have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting.
    “He went in there knowing he was going to die,” Gorman said. “That school did everything right and still couldn’t keep him out.”
    A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on violence stated the odds of a person ages 5-18 being victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was 1 in 2.5 million. The last time a Missouri student died in a school shooting was at Parkway South Junior High in 1983, when according to the Associated Press a case of bullying resulted in a murder-suicide.
    Since then, hundreds of others have died from other causes, Fennewald said, including lack of working smoke detectors, drinking and driving and lack of seatbelt use.
    "Let's take a holistic view of this," he said. "How are our children dying? [...] There are a lot of other things if we want to focus on student safety, things we can do to make our communities safer without putting more resource officers in our schools."
    The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
    — Additional reporting by Sarah Gooding.
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