tHe is calling for more armed officers to be placed in schools across the country, soon after 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott encouraged schools to increase the presence of law enforcement officers on campus, and the Uvalde school district superintendent said he plans to do so this fall. In Kentucky, hundreds of school resource officers (SROs) must be hired before August to meet a new state law that requires there to be an SRO on every K-12 campus in the state. And the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), which trains school officials, advocates that “every school at every level” have a trained school resource officer on campus when the school is in session.
NASRO executive director Mo Canady says responding to school shootings is “a critical part of the job” for school staff. “When it comes to school attendance, there is nothing more important that the SRO is concerned with,” he says.
But the trend of placing more armed police officers on campuses in response to school shootings has come, although it’s not clear that the presence of an SRO makes a mass shooting on campus less likely. And the final push comes despite the failure of armed officers to stop the gunman in Uvalde. The reaction of the school police there has become a national scandal.
An ‘abject failure’ in Uvalde
Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo, third from left, stands at a press conference outside Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Dario Lopez-Mills – AP
In testimony before a Texas State Senate Committee on Tuesday, Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called the police response to the Uvalde shooting “a horrific failure.” Officers from the school waited more than an hour to enter the classrooms and confront the gunman — a decision that “contradicted everything we’ve learned over the past two decades since the Columbine massacre” in 1999, McCraw said.
Best practices call for agents to respond to “stop the killing” first and confront the attacker as quickly as possible. Officers must “take immediate action to isolate, divert or neutralize the threat, even if it means one agent acting alone,” according to active-firing training by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
McCraw blamed the school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, who he identified as the commander at the scene during the shooting. McCraw said three minutes after the gunman entered the building, there were enough armed officers wearing body armor “to isolate, distract and neutralize the subject.” But instead, officers waited an hour and 14 minutes to enter the classroom and kill the gunman.
“The only thing that kept a corridor of dedicated officers from entering rooms 111 and 112 was the site commander, who decided to put the lives of officers before the lives of children,” McCraw said Tuesday. “The officers had weapons; the kids had none. The officers had body armor; the kids had none. The officers received training; the subject had none.”
Eight officers from the Uvalde Police Department and three members of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department, including Arredondo, entered the school building three minutes after the gunman. according to a timeline shared by McCraw on Tuesday.
McCraw accused Arredondo of waiting for the arrival of a radio, guns, shields, a SWAT team and “a key that was never needed,” claiming that the classroom door had been unlocked all along, but no one had checked. .
Arredondo defended his response, contradicting some of McCraw’s claims in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune. He said he did not consider himself the incident commander and did not give “orders” to tell officers not to breach the building. He told the Tribune that the classroom door was locked and could not be kicked in as he tried “dozens” of keys to unlock it. An Arredondo lawyer did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the school principal of Uvalde placed Arredondo on administrative leave as the district awaits the results of an investigation into the response to the shooting.
Canady says NASRO had trained officers in the Uvalde neighborhood in the past, but he doesn’t know if that included officers responding to the Robb Elementary shooting. He says it is possible that best practices were not followed by officers during the shooting, but he does not yet have enough details to assess what happened in Uvalde.
More armed police and more school shootings
About 51% of schools had sworn law enforcement officers who routinely carried a firearm in the 2019-20 school year, up from 43% in the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And 65% of public schools had one or more guards on campus during the 2019-20 school year, up from about 42% of schools in 2005-06. The 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparked even more calls for armed officers and even armed teachers in schools.
Meanwhile, the number of casualty shootings at K-12 schools has increased since the 2012-13 school year — when there were 22 shootings, including the deadly attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School — reaching 93 shootings in 2020-21, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Canady argues that if SROs are carefully selected and properly trained, they can be a valuable asset to schools. “You have to be prepared that if you hear gunshots at your school, or you hear anything else, the switch is immediately flipped and you become the best tactical officer your department can hope to offer,” Canady says. “There is no one who can be perfect in all those roles. But we’re looking for the best we can get.”
But training aside, it’s not clear that school personnel officers actually improve safety. A 2021 paper by researchers at Hamline University and Metropolitan State University in Minnesota examined 133 school shootings. The study concluded that there was no association between the presence of an armed officer and deterrence of violence, noting that most school shooters are students themselves, raising the question of whether increasing school security is an effective preventive tool.
READ MORE: Schools spend billions on security measures to stop mass shootings. It is not clear that they work
Indeed, there was an SRO on campus during the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 people but was unable to stop the gunman. Later in 2018, two police officers were stationed at Santa Fe High School in Texas, praised for their bravery after confronting a school shooter and cornering him within four minutes. Still, eight students and two employees were killed.
“We need to face the truth — more militarized school environments are not addressing the root causes of mass violence,” Andrew Hairston, Education Justice Project Director for Texas Appleseed, said in a statement following the Uvalde shooting.
Canady points to other examples of officers stopping school shooters, including a 2018 shooting at Maryland’s Great Mills High School, in which the gunman committed suicide while confronting a school employee after killing one student and injuring another. In another incident in 2018, a police officer in Dixon, Illinois, shot a gunman who opened fire during a high school graduation rehearsal and then fled the building.
‘A huge task’
Not all schools are focused on adding police officers. In the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020, schools from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, have removed officers from campus in response to concerns about policing, particularly for black students.
Jeff Godown, chief of school police in Oakland, California, supported a school board vote, inspired by years of community activism, to eliminate his department — and his job — in June 2020.
Today, Godown still believes there is no need to have armed officers patrolling the school hallways to solve everyday disciplinary problems. He understands that parents or teachers would be more comfortable with a cop standing guard outside a school, but he’s concerned that this isn’t a realistic or affordable solution.
“Are you telling me that we need an armed police officer in every school – elementary and middle school – in the United States of America?” says Godown, who is now the interim police chief at California State University, San Bernardino. “That would be a huge task to assign so many officers to those schools.”
He says it’s a mistake to put all responsibility on SROs and the school’s “hardening” efforts, without also addressing access to assault rifles used by the gunmen in Uvalde and Parkland. “I see no need for that weapon in circulation to a civilian population,” he says, noting that the use of such weapons creates additional challenges for responding officers, who are likely armed only with a pistol.
“Most of these people who come into the schools are heavily armed, as in this case, and sometimes the officers get shot by the word Go,” Godown says. “They will be the first line of defense,” he says, of school resources. “But you can’t expect them to be the only line of defense.”
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