A gunman opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, killing 27 – 18 of which are children – before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.More >>
Residents of Newtown, CT, are memorializing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. A gunman opened fire at the school, killing 26 – including 20 children – before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.More >>
(RNN) - With many schools around the country on edge in the wake of the Newtown, CT, massacre, calls for armed police officers at schools are on the rise.
However, critics argue putting more police in schools would be a financial burden on school districts and a danger to students.
The Justice Policy Institute published a study in 2011 on school resource officer programs. Tracy Velazquez, executive director of JPI, said one of the reasons schools cut the programs was violence in schools has decreased in the past 20 years.
Critics of police in schools also argue SROs could create a "school to prison pipeline," with legal action taken against students for minor infractions, like cutting class or playing pranks.
Four days prior to the Newtown shooting, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, held a hearing to discuss the growing concern of officers in schools.
According to a written statement by the Institute of Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, the past 5 to 10 years have seen a dramatic increase in court referrals for offenses committed by students.
"In some jurisdictions, school-based referrals now comprise the majority of all juvenile justice cases," the statement said. "The most common school-based offense for which students are either arrested or summoned to court is 'disturbing a school assembly,' which can be broadly interpreted by school officials and police to encompass behaviors that in the past would not have warranted law enforcement intervention."
One example of a minor infraction that caused a student to be punished was a highly publicized case of a Virginia teen who shot "spit wads" at classmates.
Exposing students to the juvenile justice system, could have long-term effects on them as well. Several groups, including the Institute of Race & Justice, argued they had a higher likelihood of dropping out of school and entering the criminal justice system as an adult.
SROs say programs are not perfect, but do provide safety
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, agreed an SRO's power could be misused to arrest kids for lesser offenses. But he said that was due to lack of training of a few officers - not the SRO program itself.
"If students are being arrested on a regular basis for minor situations that might be able to be handled by the school, that can do more harm than good … if you're walking though the hall with a ticket book looking for the next kid to cite, you're not building relationships," Canady said.
Canady added NASRO strongly advocated for properly trained and selected school resource officers.
"We do not advocate for untrained police officers being placed in schools just for security measures," he said. "That can be a recipe for disaster."
Canady said SROs should be seen as an asset in school security - not the sole component. Also, properly trained officers could build relationships with students and teach them about the law while also protecting them against lethal situations if needed.
"One of the things we provide is 'active shooter training' specifically for SROs in terms of how to tactically defeat [situations like Newtown], and it can help increase the level of security," Canady said.
As for the cost, Canady acknowledged the financial hardships school districts face. He said he hoped to see an increase in federal funding for school safety to ease the burden.
High costs make it difficult to put police in schools
The estimated cost of a single SRO ranges from $40,000 to $100,000 per year. The costs include everything from salary and benefits to vehicle maintenance and equipment.
For large school districts, the costs could reach the millions. Even for smaller school districts, an extra $40,000 to $100,000 could be hard to come by.
In Tennessee, state Sen. Frank Nicely began drafting a bill to require at least one SRO or trained staff member in each school. Jason Vance, the director of the school district in Tennessee's Loudon County, said funding would be an issue.
"We'd love to have an SRO in every one of our schools; I think that would be fantastic," Vance said, according to WBIR. "However, I am concerned about the financial restraints that would come with it."
SROs have been in schools since the 1950s, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that they had a large presence. The Columbine massacre in 1999 and other high-profile school shootings led to an increase in calls for campus security.
With the help of nearly $1 billion in federal grants from the Community Oriented Policing Services In Schools Program between 2000 and 2011, school districts around the country put more SROs on their campuses. The number reached an all-time high of 14,337 in 2003, according to the JPI.
The COPS grants peaked in 2002 but have dramatically decreased since, leading to an 8.9 percent fewer SROs between 2003 and 2007. Without the help of federal funds, more officers could be dropped from school budgets.
"School districts have had to make choices around whether or not they want to pay for SROs, and many have said no," Velazquez said.
Still searching for solutions
SRO programs have faced heavy criticism in the past two years. There has also been an increase in school shootings during that time.
While there has been disagreement on everything from the extent of school violence to the proper way to protect students, all sides agree the most important thing is to keep kids safe.
"We hope that we can take a few deep breaths … and allow policy makers a chance to make decisions based on what, in the long run, will be the best for increasing public safety," Velazquez said.
Following the Newtown shooting, officials across the U.S. are making the case an SRO is needed in every school. The mayor of Orlando, FL, Teresa Jacobs, has called for a deputy at every school in her district.
"It gives us a greater level of confidence, it's a major deterrent, and it buys us the time to look at each of the schools and determine if there are any additional measures that need to be put into place," Jacobs said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "I know the school district is very conscientious and has safety plans in place, but this has taken us all aback."
Rusty Glover, an Alabama state senator and high school teacher, has also called for a police officer at every school in his district.
"[Newtown] is an eye-opener to the possibilities of what could happen on our school campuses if we don't take measures to protect our children," Glover told Local 15.
Parents of school children also urged officials to implement armed officers at schools, such as Diane Sapp, a parent of a 6-year-old who attends school in Dalton, GA.
"This shooting has shaken me," Sapp told The Daily Citizen. "I think we need someone of authority at every school — someone armed who kids can trust and who can protect them if something like this happens."
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