The massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Conn., in December forever changed the elementary school landscape in Hillsborough County and across the country. But lost in the debate over how to protect our most vulnerable students is the need to keep security and education separate and distinct. Teachers, principals and other school personnel are in the job of educating and running schools. Although they routinely have to play the role of campus cop, allowing them to carry weapons crosses a dangerous line. That is the job of the professionals — highly trained law enforcement officers, or security firms, who know how to protect citizens and respond to armed madmen. In Hillsborough, school board members need to follow the recommendation of their superintendent and security consultant and permanently hire armed officers for the county’s elementary schools — no matter the cost.
Elementary school principals agree on the need, and that should resonate loudly. As Joanne Baumgartner, principal of Mitchell Elementary, told the board at a meeting Tuesday: “We’re on the front lines every day.” Even if extracurricular activities or other programs have to be scaled back a bit to free up the $4 million or so it would cost for a full-time security program each year in the elementary schools, we don’t think parents would mind. Education used to their chief concern during the school day, but many parents now worry about the safety of their young ones because of the Sandy Hook slaughter. With armed officers in elementary schools, parents should be able to get back some of their peace of mind, and educators can concentrate on educating. Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, some lawmakers are charting a dangerous course that would turn school personnel into armed guards. On Wednesday a House education subcommittee approved legislation by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube — whose father is a sheriff — that would allow principals and school superintendents to designate school employees to carry concealed weapons. This is a knee-jerk idea that could prove disastrous. Even though Steube says designated employees would have to receive extensive firearms training, he obviously forgets that adults can make mistakes — especially in an elementary school setting, when the day can be hectic and stressful — and that children can be mischievous. Suppose a school employee who, under the legislation, would be required to keep the firearm on his or her body throughout the school day, for one reason or another puts the weapon in a desk drawer and a child finds it. Suppose an unruly child grabs an employee’s gun. Guns should be carried in schools only by law enforcement officers or licensed security personnel, who undergo extensive training and who are in the profession of protecting the public. Even Steube’s father, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, has qualms with the legislation. He said security should be provided by resource officers or security personnel and, in an interview with the Bradenton Herald, questioned whether school staff would receive adequate, continuous training. “You want to make it so there is constant training on the part of this person and trips to the gun range for practice,” he added. “You want someone to show proficiency shooting at least once a year.” This is a perfect example of Rep. Steube and other lawmakers having their hearts in the right place but failing to think through potential consequences. Although Steube notes correctly that most school districts don’t have the extra money to provide school resource officers at all their schools, the answer isn’t to arm school employees. The answer is to hire certified law enforcement officers or professional security agents. They have the expertise to keep schools safe. Let school employees concentrate on educating youths and running schools.