Three R's now must be under armed guard
Keeping armed police officers or deputies in all public elementary schools in Hillsborough County, at least until summer, is a rational reaction to the classroom terror last month in Newtown, Conn. Many parents and teachers enter the New Year with new worries about security. Finding the right balance between cost and safety will require more research and a lively public airing of concerns. In the meantime, stretching resources to safeguard the schools with competent personnel is at worst an excess of caution. The same cannot be said for some other proposals we're heard, such as arming principals and teachers, or letting civilian volunteers with firearms patrol the halls. The only guns allowed on campus should be in the hands of those with the proper training and who are accountable to a chain of command experienced in managing life-and-death situations. Nor do we believe school protection is suitable duty for the National Guard. Schools are not in the midst of a terrorist emergency. What communities are facing is a question of how to better protect the campus — a local issue best solved with local resources.Changes in society already have demanded the widespread presence of officers in high schools and middle schools, as well as in many libraries and other public buildings. Officers standing guard among students are called school resource officers, and it is not a euphemism. They are a valuable educational resource. The officers are a role model for students. They have the power to deal with illegal drugs and weapons, bomb threats, and bullying, but they can also teach and counsel on those issues. They give students a personalized, unthreatening introduction to law enforcement, which leads to less fear and more respect. And in litigious times when teachers can get into big trouble for improperly touching a student, discipline can be a challenge. Having someone on staff with arrest powers can make a big impression on an unruly student or unwelcomed campus visitor. Officers also get to know students and are tipped off to such things as drug deals, underage drinking and sexual misconduct. At the elementary level, the officer's role would be different. In addition to providing reassuring security, the officer would concentrate on public relations and keep alert for such things as child abuse and custody disputes. There can be no guarantee an officer would be able to stop a suicidal gunman. Two armed officers were on campus at the time of the Columbine shootings. But that's no argument against hardening the campus in any number of ways. The question to be debated is how much security is appropriate and how to pay for it. The Dallas Independent School District has its own police department, as do major colleges and universities. That seems unnecessary here, given the cooperative attitude of Tampa Police and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, but the price of the additional manpower needs to be broadly shared, not taken out of school budgets. The state Legislature should consider giving some state lottery funds to school districts for enhanced campus security. Let's hope we never see a repeat of the Sandy Hook disaster and that soon added security for first-graders will seem unnecessary. But it well could be that U.S. society is in a transition to more disorderly and dangerous times. That would mean redesigning schools to be more secure, and making the campus police officer a permanent fixture.