The urgent drumbeat has swelled since Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida became the latest school to be invaded by a shooter armed with an AR-15: We have to do something. Everyone from the students themselves to their parents, the Broward County sheriff, state lawmakers, and the president agree on the need for more measures to ensure confidence that children can make it home safely from class.
What that something should look like, though, is a matter of intense debate. The students, their parents, and gun-control advocates want a ban on assault-style weapons. In red states and the White House, the solution being raised with greater frequency is putting good guys with guns in US schools.
That’s what Kentucky state Sen. Steve West is proposing. The Republican lawmaker filed his state’s bill the same day a student opened fire in a western Kentucky high school in late January, killing two students and injuring 18 other people.
“My bill will not save the world,” he says in an interview. “This is a true stop-gap measure. [We’re] just trying our best to fill in a hole and fill that hole in school safety in Kentucky.”
Speaking in his office in Frankfort – a few weeks after the Marshall County shooting in Kentucky and a week before the Broward County shooting in Florida – he regrets even having to consider the measure, which would give school districts the ability to place full-time armed "marshals" in schools. The marshals could be former cops or soldiers, or teachers and staff with adequate training
“I don’t want to be filing this bill. I wish we didn’t have to address this situation,” he says, but “we’re at a line where we need to do something to address the problem.”
Five school shootings so far in 2018 have resulted in serious physical injury or death – including the fatal shooting of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman – and West’s is one of several measures states have immediately begun to explore.
These share one basic feature: more guns in and around schools. In Florida’s Broward County, sheriff’s deputies have been ordered to patrol schools with assault rifles. On Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed a raft of measures, including raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21. The Republican governor called for a mandatory law enforcement officer in every public school and for mandatory "active shooter training" for students and faculty. In Alabama, a lawmaker has filed a bill that would arm the state’s public school teachers. The Maryland state legislature is considering a similar bill, and many school districts in the state already have armed school resource officers (SROs).
Indeed, while the debate over armed security in schools has reached a roar in the nine days since the Parkland, Fla., shooting, security officers in general have quietly become increasingly prevalent in US schools. But when it comes to preventing school shootings, experts say there is no conclusive evidence on their effect. In fact, research raises more questions: What level of training should security officers receive before being armed on campus? Where should the guns be kept? Should officers have other disciplinary powers and be able to arrest students?
There is anecdotal evidence of officers engaging and stopping school shooters, such as a 2014 shooting at an Oregon high school. But there is anecdotal evidence of the opposite happening: During the shooting in Florida, an armed SRO waited outside while the massacre occurred, the Broward County sheriff says. “Devastated, sick to my stomach, there are no words,” Sheriff Scott Israel said Thursday, announcing that the SRO resigned.
“This is a fairly consistent response to acts of school violence,” says Jason Nance, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who focuses his research on school discipline and police in schools, says of the impulse to add armed security to schools.
“The problem in my view,” he adds, “is that these are not really adequate long-term solutions to promote safe learning environments.”
'Terrible' but infrequent
Law enforcement officers – particularly in the form of SROs, police officers specially trained for schools – have become quietly prevalent in schools across the country. In 1975 only 1 percent of US schools had an officer assigned to them. By 2007 that figure had risen to 40 percent. Research on their effectiveness cuts both ways. Crime on school property drops when SROs are present, some studies show. Recent research, however, has shown that a stronger law enforcement presence in schools can lead to more students being diverted into the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses previously handled by teachers.
While the idea of having a law enforcement officer patrolling a school is increasingly accepted, whether they should be armed is still an open question. Officers in Boston and New York, for example, are unarmed, with a Boston police official saying in 2014 that even allowing officers to carry pepper spray “would drive a wedge between our students and the school police.”
No one really knows what the best approach is, at least scientifically. A 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service found “conflicting conclusions about whether SRO programs are effective at reducing school violence” and that “research does not address whether SRO programs deter school shootings.”
The problem researchers have is that while school shootings undoubtedly happen too often, they “don’t happen frequently enough that it’s very easy to predict what’s going to cause them,” and thus whether armed security personnel would have a meaningful impact in preventing them, says Emily Owens, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has researched school police programs.
“Social scientists are in an uncomfortable position that this is a terrible event that doesn’t happen frequently enough to lend it to analytical tools,” she adds, a position that’s made more difficult by the federal government’s restricting research into gun violence since 1996.
Some researchers point to what is done in other professions.
“Prison guards don’t carry guns, for very good reason,” writes Philip Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke University and an expert on both gun control and educational policy, in an email to the Monitor.
“Common sense suggests it’s a bad idea to introduce guns into schools,” he adds.
For their part, students from Marjory Stoneman say they don't believe that arming teachers – as the president suggested this week – would prevent other students from enduring what they have gone through. One junior says having a gun in the classroom would make her uncomfortable.
“We all think it is a bad idea. I only know two people out of the hundreds of us who went to Tallahassee [to protest for gun control] who think it's a good idea,” says junior Casey Sherman, who was in Spanish class on Valentine’s Day when the alarm went off. “The money that would have to go to training the teachers could be put to better use. We think putting that funding – instead of in-depth training for teachers – put it toward better preparing officers for these types of situations so they could better react.”
“And God forbid the teacher hits a student,” the 17-year-old adds.
What some researchers say they would prefer to see are resources put toward preventing students from opening fire in a school in the first place, by investing in counselors and social workers who could help students work through problems in nonviolent ways.
“It’s not clear that [SROs] promote safe learning climates, but we have a lot of research on what does promote safe learning climates. It has much more to do with the quality of relationships between students and teachers, and between teachers and parents,” says Professor Nance.
“That to me is a better solution,” he adds, “rather than have an [SRO] gun a student down after injuries have already taken place.”
Kentucky's proposed solution
A school marshal in Kentucky would only be allowed to have a small firearm, and the gun would be kept in a lockbox “until the need arises,” says Mr. West. They would also need to have a concealed-carry permit. To get such a permit in Kentucky a person would have to take a gun training course. However, while the permit expires after five years, the certificate is good for life.
“You’re putting yourself in a situation where someone maybe five years ago had a firearm training class but now they have a weapon in a school,” says Professor Owens.
West, a Republican, says he would want to leave individual school districts as much latitude as possible to set their own training requirements for marshals. He does admit, however, that “we do need probably to step [them] up a notch.”
“The ideal situation for this bill is ex-military, ex-police,” he adds.
For their part, veterans would probably be more than happy to do the job, according to Kentuckian Andrew Drury, who says he served two tours in Iraq for the US Army.
“I would say there’s a ton of veterans that are bored and would happily volunteer to stand in front of a school, armed,” says Mr. Drury, speaking on a warm February morning in Lexington.
“I would trust them more than I trust anybody else,” he adds. “And they’d volunteer; you wouldn’t even have to pay them.”
But for some educators, that raises the issue of having people on school grounds who, while trained in handling firearms and dangerous situations, are not trained on interacting day-in day-out with children.
Standing outside William G. Conkwright Elementary School in Winchester, Ky., on a frosty morning last week, Sherry Browning, the assistant principal, says she wouldn’t be opposed to having armed marshals – so long as it’s someone who is “specially” trained given “the unexpectedness of [children’s] reactions.”
“They need to be trained in all aspects of safety,” Ms. Browning adds, “but if they were going to be in our building every day they would need to be trained in interacting with children so children wouldn’t be afraid.”
National momentum building
At the national level, momentum for armed security at schools seems to be building.
President Trump hosted a “school safety roundtable” on Thursday with state and local officials, taking to Twitter beforehand to say that, in addition to “pushing comprehensive background checks [for gun purchases] with an emphasis on mental health,” he also supported arming “highly trained, gun adept teachers/coaches.”
Later that day, in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre said that every community in America “must come together to implement the very best strategy to harden their schools, including effective, trained, armed security that will absolutely protect every innocent child in this country.”
It represents something of a change of heart for Mr. Trump, who two days before the massacre in Florida had proposed a 2019 budget that would cut millions of dollars from counseling and violence-prevention programs in schools. The budget also proposes a 50 percent cut to the Justice Department’s COPS Hiring Program, which among other things gives funding to local agencies to hire SROs.
In Frankfort, West says he would like schools in the state to have both armed marshals and more counseling. But what he wants above all – and what he has wanted for decades – is to do something. Because much as active shooter drills have become routine for America’s students, pushing for armed security in schools has become routine for him.
He recalls the first time he filed a school safety bill. It was 2016, and he was motivated then by the 1997 fatal shooting of three students during a prayer meeting at another Kentucky high school.
“If we don’t do something as a state, if we don’t do something in our schools, the same thing is going to happen,” he recalls telling them.
Swamped by an arduous budget battle, however, the bill never saw the light of day. He expected it to suffer a similar fate this legislative session. Then the shooting in Marshall County happened.
“All of a sudden it was Job 1 again,” he says.
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report from Boston.