MIAMI – In the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Pembroke Pines, students returning to school this year are being greeted not only by their teachers and principal. They’re also meeting the armed school resource officer who will be stationed permanently on campus.
Crime in this middle-class community has been on a steady decline, but city officials decided to place a school police officer at every elementary, middle and high school after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last year.
“It is a relief to have them here,” Lakeside Elementary School Principal Linda Pazos said Monday, the first day of school.
In the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook, many districts across the nation are increasing the number of school resource officers on campus and, in a few cases, permitting teachers to carry concealed weapons themselves.
An armed security presence is now standard in many of the nation’s middle and high schools, but it has been rarity at elementary schools. Few districts can afford to place a school resource officer at every elementary school, because there are so many and they tend to have fewer incidents requiring a police response than middle and high schools.
Lawmakers in every state in the nation introduced school safety legislation this year, and in at least 20 states those proposals became law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The new laws range from one authorizing a volunteer, emergency security force at schools in Franklin County, Ala., to one allowing Missouri state employees to keep firearms in a vehicle on state property, if the car is locked and the weapon is approved by authorities and not visible.
Bernard James, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., said one clear trend among legislation introduced since Newtown has been assessing the security of elementary school campuses.
Past efforts to prevent school violence had not focused on elementary schools, James said, “and that lack of dedicating resources is what was under examination.”
There are more than 67,000 elementary schools nationwide, more than twice the number of middle and high schools combined.
Sandy Hook Elementary had all the standard safeguards and more, including a locked, video-monitored front door. It did not have a school resource officer. Instead, like most districts, there were police officers at nearby middle and high schools.
There are many advantages to having an officer stationed at school: Students who see or hear something suspicious immediately know who to tell; the mere presence of an officer can deter would-be attackers; and if a gunman does attack, a school resource officer is already there to respond, saving critical minutes between a 911 call and dispatchers mobilizing police.
“That first, immediate shot, chances are nobody is going to be able to stop,” Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said. “The difference is going to be responding to it.”
Quinn said his group has trained twice as many new officers as last year, more than 90 since January.
While some question the need for an armed presence on campus, arming teachers and others when a school resource officer can’t be hired is even more controversial. At least three states have passed laws allowing teachers to be carry handguns on campus.
State Rep. Brett Hildabrand supported one such law in Kansas. It would allow teachers and staff with concealed carry permits to bring guns to school. He said the law has been misperceived as requiring teachers to carry, rather than letting districts determine their own policy.
“If a district doesn’t want to adopt, then they don’t have to,” he said.
Few if any districts in the state have adopted the law as local policy. A major reason is that Kansas’ main school insurer, EMC Insurance Cos., has said it won’t renew coverage for schools that allow teachers and other staff to carry concealed weapons.
“We’ve been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any onsite armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers,” said Mick Lovell, vice president of business development for the company. “Our guidelines have not recently changed.”
Quinn and others worry that an armed teacher may actually put kids more at risk, rather than protect them. If a shooter did come on campus, for example, teachers might have to choose between safeguarding students and leaving them to respond to an incident. Having an armed teacher on campus also could complicate matters for a responding officer who doesn’t know if the teacher is an employee or the shooter, Quinn said.
“Who’s the bad guy?” he said. “Who’s the teacher with the gun?”
Christine Aron, a speech and language pathologist at Pines Lakes Elementary in Pembroke Pines, Fla., said she would not feel safer taking a handgun to school.
“I just think there’s the potential for further injury, unnecessary injury, should God forbid a student get ahold of a weapon,” Aron said. “It happens all the time that kids get ahold of guns in their own homes that belong to their parents.”
Parents, for their part, have mixed feelings about having an armed presence on campus. Renee Lindberg has three children in Pembroke Pines schools, each now staffed with a full-time school resource officer.
“If it were 20, 30 years ago, you might go, ‘Is that really necessary?’” she said. But after shootings like Sandy Hook, “It does bring a little peace of mind.”
Dara Van Antwerp, the school resource officer at Panther Run Elementary, the school one of Lindberg’s children attends, said she used to have to monitor three or four schools at once. Having just one school, she said, lets her focus completely on campus security and better watch for suspicious activity.
“I’m not en route to another school and have a call come out at the one I just left,” she said.