Unfortunately, as we have seen far too frequently, our schools are easy targets for those who wish to harm others. When premeditated attacks and school shootings occur, they are usually over within minutes. Most of the time law enforcement is simply not able to respond quickly enough to the event, and lives are needlessly lost.
Intruders, who wish to hurt our students and teachers, are usually familiar with the schools’ defense system and create plans around that information. More than likely, the defense strategy is in the student handbook posted online. These people know when to attack, where to go and often how to escape. Students and teachers alike, as well as approved visitors should have a visible identification badge on them at all times. There needs to be secure exterior doors to limit building access points, and each district should develop a uniform policy for entry into a school.
Former Metro Nashville Principal Bill Gemmill pointed out, “All schools need upgraded security, whether it is as simple and reasonable as inside locks on classroom doors.” It is also time to put metal detectors in every school across America. The federal government could absorb the cost by simply eliminating any of the already wasteful programs they are funding. Public school safety must be a priority at every level of government. If you see something, say something, and then someone in authority must do something.
The last line of defense that we can have for our kids is an armed person willing and ready to defend them if the unspeakable should happen. That is why it is critical we look at expanding the school resource officer program. This is a highly effective program that serves many purposes during the school year and is invaluable where it now exists. It is important that the program be directed by a local law-enforcement agency, working in conjunction with the local education agency. The school can employ and use additional security, but the primary responsibility should fall to local law enforcement.
The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing has outlined three basic roles of an SRO, safety expert and law enforcer, problem solver and liaison to community resources and educator. While all three are important functions, the primary role should focus on the law enforcement and safety component. SRO’s should preserve order and promoting safety on campus and serve as first responders in the event of critical incidents at schools such as accidents, fires, explosions and other life-threatening events.
They are not supplementary school administrators who deal with minor school discipline issues or emergency instructors. It is clear we must better define SRO programs, what we want them to accomplish and better analyze how we measure their effectiveness. Law enforcement and school district leaders should yield to the law enforcement professionals on matters of school safety and law enforcement.
It is time to discuss the gun issue. I strongly support the Second Amendment and have a handgun carry permit myself. We must have common-sense approach to who, when and where we can carry firearms, without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.
We should raise the age for the purchase of certain guns to the age of 21, with exemption to active duty military. We prohibit drinking of alcoholic beverage until 21; we should follow suit here, as well. Many young people just are not prepared for the responsibility of drinking or owning a firearm.
We should make stronger background checks, considering factors such as criminal background and mental health. We should also prohibit bump stocks that can convert guns into automatic weapons. We should more aggressively punish those who commit crimes with guns. But we will need to be careful that the policy is reasonable.
Policymakers, at the state and federal level, are also likely to look at legislation that empowers individual school districts to determine for themselves what direction they want to take on school safety, including qualified, certified and licensed volunteer school personnel going armed in their building. If a district decides to allow trained and armed teachers and administrators into the schools, the decision should not be taken lightly. The state should never mandate educators having to carry firearms or prohibit them from carrying, if permitted by the district. It is a decision that should be made at the local level based on the needs and size of the community.
Certainly, armed teachers who possess training or a military background would deter some intruders. However, trained law enforcement personnel are much preferred and would be a much greater deterrent. Mike Conrad, a teacher in Detroit said in a recent interview, “I think that the moment that you put a gun on the hip of a teacher in a classroom, that we have accepted the norm that school shootings will not stop, that we are now on the front line to defend against them, instead of trying to find a way to stop them.” The subject is emotional, with good arguments coming from either side of the debate, which is why each community must decide for themselves this issue.
School safety policies must be flexible and practical. However, the issue of improved school security will not be resolved in the current political environment, as long as real solutions are not considered based on a liberal or conservative bias. It is time to quit playing political volleyball with this issue. Real lives, those of children and adults, are at stake in our schools. The time of talking is past; it is time to take action. Any viable option that can lead to a safer environment in our schools and communities should be on the table.
J.C. Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.