In considering whether or not a fledgling advocacy group calling for at least one armed police officer to be placed in every school in Rhode Island has real merit and is worthy of a $24 million …
In considering whether or not a fledgling advocacy group calling for at least one armed police officer to be placed in every school in Rhode Island has real merit and is worthy of a $24 million estimated annual price tag for taxpayers, it is important to establish a few foundational truths.
Their proposal, at face value, seems hard to argue with. Violence perpetrated by radical domestic terrorists (call them what they are) has become a near weekly-occurrence in America, and all too often they choose our nation’s most innocent citizens (children) as their victims. Who would argue against funding a means to prevent further school shootings?
While we’re not necessarily arguing against the notion that an armed police officer housed within a school building could possibly prevent a future tragedy, we’re not entirely convinced of that assumption either. Unfortunately, in modern America we’ve been given two specific examples within 10 months of one another — one of which directly supports the theory that police can make schools safer, and the other which contradicts it.
In March, officers in Nashville responded to an active shooter and neutralized the perpetrator within literal minutes of arriving on scene. Their actions were universally heralded as a textbook example of precise, disciplined police work, and if one of those officers had been located in the school at the time the incident began, it certainly seems likely they may have been able to prevent that tragedy from occurring at all.
But 10 months prior, in Uvalde, the world learned with outrage how local law enforcement could so horribly botch an active shooter situation, resulting in 19 elementary students and two teachers being killed. Additionally, in Parkland in 2018, a resource officer was on duty at the school, and still the gunman was able to carry out their horrid plan when that officer failed in their sworn duty.
All of this is to say that, outside of emotional arguments and a desire for feeling comfort in light of a situation that feels increasingly hopeless, having a police officer in a building may or may not have any actual impact on the safety of students within those buildings.
What we do know, from decades of School Resource Officers (SROs) being federally funded and placed within schools throughout the country, is that the implementation and training of those SROs means absolutely everything.
When advocates call for “cops” in schools, they should specify that they want an officer whose primary job is not to “police” the school building. Research has shown that such implementation results in situations where the officer — who realistically isn’t going to have an active threat to respond to often, or ever — will find other ways to fill their time and justify their presence. And unfortunately, that has often meant the policing of students (inordinately minority students, the ACLU has found) for small offenses that would have otherwise been dealt with internally by school administration and parents, and contributes to the creation of a tense, distrusting environment that is not beneficial for learning.
On the flip side, in many places SROs are celebrated members of the school community who contribute overwhelmingly positively to the school experience, fostering better relationships between youth and law enforcement while not focusing on trying to shovel kids into the prison industrial complex.
However, in budget-conscious Rhode Island, the price tag will be the real issue keeping this concept from being realized. A lot of good could be done — programs funded, leaks fixed, teachers hired, etc. — with an additional $24 million a year in funding.
And in our view, these are both valid concerns to exercise caution over this idea.
Before any legislator even considers finding that money, they should be convinced that such a program would have a rigorous screening process to ensure they would be placing good people in schools who have the adequate training in active threat response, have the necessary empathy to perform a stressful job around children, and who want to become a part of their school community, rather than an armed warden overseeing it.
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