As alarmed parents seek reassurance, we understand why local school districts are moving to hire retired police officers as security against school shooters.
Some local districts, like Granville, already have police officers in school buildings, acting as “school resource officers.” Others are looking to hire officers in the wake of the terrible shooting in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people.
Warren County Sheriff Bud York has undertaken to help schools looking for officers, by advertising for retirees who are interested and offering to handle the program’s logistics. The county will bear some costs as well, such as for guns and uniforms.
Retired police officers can receive a maximum salary of $30,000 and will not collect benefits. But that will still be a significant cost for school districts with little money to spare. In many local districts, buildings need repairs and the schools can offer only a basic curriculum, with no AP classes and only one foreign language because of a lack of funds.
Many districts comprise more than one building, which means more than one officer will have to be hired. School shootings usually last just a few minutes, so a resource officer cannot be effective outside a single building. Queensbury would need at least four officers. Glens Falls would need four also, five if you count Abraham Wing.
Hadley-Luzerne is contracting with the Sheriff’s Office for two armed officers, which could cost the district $60,000 a year. If residents feel this is the best way to safeguard students, then hiring the officers makes sense. They are professionals and they would have at least a fighting chance of preventing a slaughter.
But school shootings, although they have a powerful effect on the national psyche, are still extremely rare events. They make up a small percentage of mass shootings, which are themselves a tiny percentage of annual gun deaths in the U.S.
Suicides outnumber all other gun deaths and we have our share of suicides in this area, unfortunately, including teen suicides. You might wonder, since we have never experienced a school shooting locally, whether money would be better spent on counseling and suicide prevention than hiring armed officers.
Since no one can predict where the next school shooting will occur, paying for armed officers is like insuring your house against a very unlikely event — a meteor strike, one letter-writer suggested to us. It’s a waste of money unless you’re the rare unlucky one whose house gets hit. How each community responds will be based on how grave it perceives the threat to be, but there is no way to guarantee the safety of any group of people.
For some perspective, we called an expert in the field — Mary Ellen O’Toole, a retired FBI agent and profiler who now runs the forensic science program at George Mason University and has studied school shootings.
She isn’t opposed to hiring armed guards for schools but believes a more comprehensive, proactive approach is needed.
“We have to understand what is going on in the culture that allows for this kind of behavior,” she said “We have a group of young men who have this kind of hateful outlook, that violence is the way to settle your issues.”
Because of the internet, these young men can adopt dark philosophies without ever being recruited or indoctrinated face to face.
“Now, you can become radicalized in your thinking all by yourself in your bedroom,” she said.
But she and others in the field have also noticed that young men planning mass shootings tend to talk about it.
“You’re bragging about it: ‘I’m about to become the most notorious person on the face of the earth,’ ” she said.
One thing schools can do is put together multidisciplinary threat assessment teams to spot warning signs among students. A school team could include a principal, teachers, counselors and a member of law enforcement and get together periodically to discuss how to manage students they had identified.
“You have to include the students and the parents in the threat assessment,” O’Toole said. “Parents must be kept informed and know about the program and understand it’s a process.”
She advocates for paying attention to every concerning behavior but using common sense when it comes to consequences. Nothing should be overlooked, but a student shouldn’t get expelled if, for example, he forgets about the hunting rifle in his family’s pickup truck and parks it in the school lot.
She is advocating to make our school communities closer and more connected — to watch out for each other — and that could help us in many ways.
School shootings are rare but profoundly troubling events. It would be nice if the problem could be addressed simply by hiring armed officers, but we hope school districts will take a broader approach. Armed officers on the scene of school shootings have a mixed record of effectiveness. We should keep an open mind and be willing to try other approaches as well to keep our students safe.