On Valentine’s Day, we remembered the students and staff from Parkland, Florida, who one year ago were struck — not by Cupid’s arrow — but by bullets from an intruder’s gun. Soon we will do the same for the 10 who perished in May’s school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.
We will, of course, never forget these tragedies, just as we will never forget the Columbine and Sandy Hook massacres from years past. These represent the awful extremes of school violence that have students and parents around the country in a hyper state of fear.
Although the sense of safety of schools has been shaken, it it important not to view such occurrences as the “new normal,” as some have suggested. Since the mass killing at Santa Fe High, there have been but four fatal gun assaults of students in our nation’s K-12 schools, each claiming the life of a single victim. Also, in the five years before the Parkland shooting, 13 students were gunned down at schools, a tiny fraction of the thousands of school-age children shot to death over that time frame while they were away from school.
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Although the “one is one too many” mantra is true, school shootings are not an epidemic. More important, there is no reason to overreact, which clearly is the case at a charter school in Palmetto, Florida, where military veterans are being hired to patrol the campus wearing body armor and carrying semi-automatic rifles. Principal Bill Jones believes this will send a strong message of deterrence to anyone who would contemplate an attack, even though a suicidal assailant might actually welcome a shootout.
But consider the broader message of danger relayed to students by such visible firepower: The bad guy is gunning for you. Transforming schools into armed camps does more to elevate fear than alleviate it.
Talent and temperament are more important
Jones is not the only administrator hiring guardians and arming them with high-powered weapons. There is, however, a significant difference between civilian guardians and school resource officers who have been deployed successfully in schools across the country for decades. Not only are SROs sworn law enforcement personnel trained for the role, but they also perform a variety of functions besides guarding against armed intruders, from vandalism prevention and drug education to mentoring students and coaching athletes.
By contrast, the school guardians being recruited in Florida and elsewhere, despite having completed an intensive training program, are ill-equipped for the job in terms of talent and temperament, not weaponry.
According to FBI data, there were 20 active shooter events at K-12 schools from 2010 through 2017, nearly half without fatalities, for an average of fewer than three incidents per year. That is in contrast to the roughly 100,000 schools in the United States. Given the exceptionally low likelihood of an active shooter attack, the overwhelming majority of the guardian’s time will be idle, much like the lonely repairman in the classic Maytag commercial.
Prevent shooters with guidance, not big guns
Not only are the odds of an active shooter much longer than the long guns used in Palmetto, but many school shootings have occurred during nonschool hours, when guardians might not be working. Unfortunately, there is always opportunity for a determined gunman to do damage in nonsecure places. Are we going to put a guard on every yellow school bus or arm the refs at JV football games?
Rather than spending scare resources to deter the unlikely gunman, it is better to invest in prevention, such as hiring more teachers, guidance counselors and school psychologists. However effective in identifying and intervening with a student seemingly on the path to destruction, this will at the same time enhance the educational and social development of countless students, most of whom would never be inclined to shoot a classmate or teacher.
In 1957, while mobilizing the Arkansas National Guard to deal with the Little Rock school integration crisis, President Dwight Eisenhower lamented: “It will be a sad day for this country … if school children can safely attend their classes only under the protection of armed guards.” That sad day has come, and the concern for aggressive over-response is bigger than Little Rock.
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox