Gun control and firearm bans are hot topics in Washington as of late. But, not too long ago, it was an armed hero that made headlines around the country.
When a student opened fire at an Atlanta middle school on Jan. 31, panic ensued. One 14-year-old boy was shot in the neck as bullets flew across the courtyard of Price Middle School. Students frantically ran for cover. But the school’s off-duty armed guard reacted quickly, wrestling the gun away from the shooter before anyone else was hurt.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children, the security provided by armed school resource officers is becoming an increasingly critical component of school safety. About a third of schools nationwide have armed officers on campus and the demand seems to be climbing in recent months. Following the deadly shooting in December, school districts around the country have requested the help of armed officers, who are provided by local police forces. Earlier this year, the school board in Newtown, Conn., also voted unanimously to request armed officers for the elementary schools in the area.
Policymakers have typically shied away from the idea of armed guards, citing it as a costly, over-the-top, ineffective remedy to school violence. But, now more than ever, it’s worth a second thought. Although it is difficult to quantify the success of armed security in schools, research published in School Psychology International in 2011 argued that the inclusion of armed resource officers actually “appears to reduce crime in their assigned schools.” In the study, Richard K. James of the University of Memphis and his colleagues cite a survey of more than 800 SROs, 75 percent of whom reported having taken weapons from students on school property. A host of other studies examining the effects of armed guards in schools have also found that it reduces violent crime, discourages criminal behavior and promotes a safer learning environment.
Armed security has also shown positive results in the U.K. and Canada, according to Barbara Raymond, a social policy expert who authored a guide in conjunction with the justice department. In her report, she noted that when armed police officers were embedded in Toronto high schools, crime rates dropped and educators, parents and students reported feeling safer. In the U.K., armed guards led to less criminal school environments and safer routes to and from school.
A recent survey of 11,000 educators nationwide also shows that support for armed guards is on the rise. Of those surveyed, nearly 88 percent said they would support having an armed guard patrolling their schools. Sixty-six percent of those who worked in schools that employed armed guards said they believe the guards make the school a safer place.
Critics often disagree, claiming that gun-wielding security officers do little more than instill fear and create a prison-like environment for students and faculty. Some educators have said they worry that armed officers in schools would do more damage to the culture and morale of the school, while doing little to curb violence. When Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association, called for armed security at schools across the country following the Sandy Hook shooting, critics pounced back, saying that his solution was simplistic. And many who oppose armed guards adamantly claim that it simply doesn’t work.
“What the NRA proposed is ludicrous,” said United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew to the New York Daily News in December. “It’ll ruin the learning environment. We don’t want our students to think their schools are prisons.”
But it seems that the experience of New York state points in a different direction. After the horrific Columbine shooting in 1999, the state police established a program that sent armed officers to schools in the region. At first, the program started out small with only nine guards but, by 2002, it has expanded to 92 resource officers due to demand. The efficacy of the program was undeniable — statistics for 2005 show that officers had overseen 2,606 criminal incidents, handled 52 bomb threats and confiscated 91 weapons, including 11 firearms. Students and teachers felt safer and the schools became more effective learning environments.
Since then, a shortage of funding has put an end to the NYSP program and scaled back many others across the country. Currently, Critics of the inclusion of armed guards in all schools have said the move would be a costly investment. But, if policymakers and leaders care about protecting children and schools, they should rethink their use of resources.