Debate on school security ramps up

Hoping to head off a push to expand police presence in the nation’s 100,000 public schools, a national civil rights group plans to issue an alternative this week to beefing up school security.

The plan focuses on counselors, campus safety teams, secure entrances and communication. It does not support adding more armed police.

“Law enforcement officers provide the appearance of security, but should not be part of a holistic, concerted effort to ensure that children are safe,” says the report by the Advancement Project, long active on school issues.

The report is scheduled for release Thursday, five days before the National Rifle Association plans to unveil a more detailed version of its December proposal to increase school security by placing armed police in every U.S. school.

The NRA’s position, which sparked national debate, came just one week after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six school staff members dead.

Former Arkansas congressman Asa Hutchinson (R), leader of the NRA’s school safety effort, said the NRA still supports adding armed police to schools but that the gun rights organization also will lay out other ideas and recommendations that it has developed since December.

“Clearly an armed security presence is only one element that needs to be addressed,” Hutchinson said in an interview Saturday.

Hutchinson, who also served as the administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and as an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said the NRA’s school security plans also will address school access, security technology and building design. The NRA also is interested in helping school systems do assessments of where they need to tighten up. Many lack resources or experts to do so, he said.

“What we’re finding is one of the greatest gaps is in the smaller school systems,” Hutchinson said.

He said that the organization does not support proposals to arm teachers but that armed police in schools represent “a common-sense approach to security that’s been around since President Clinton.”

More than 10,000 armed police — known as “school resource officers” — work in the nation’s schools, but few are assigned to elementary schools.

Since the Newtown shootings, officials in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Prince William counties have proposed significant increases in police presence in their schools. A national counterpoint, Denver recently limited the role of police in schools.

The Advancement Project report points to options other than adding law enforcement officers.

It suggests boosting the number of counselors, social workers and psychologists, who can keep a “watchful and caring eye” on students. The report says “a positive school culture” is key to preventing shootings.

The report recommends a ratio of not more than 250 students to one school counselor, though it points out that the national average is 459 students to one counselor. It cites research that found that 71 percent of school attackers felt bullied or persecuted, and it recommends positive behavior programs, conflict resolution and other student supports as possible solutions.

To address security in particular, the Advancement Project ­recommends secure entrances, outdoor cameras, panic buttons, communication systems, identification badges, visitor sign-in procedures and a trained safety ombudsman “to receive student and staff concerns regarding student behavior that may indicate the possibility of an attack.”

“We need strong adult-student relationships, and that comes in the form of counselors and psychologists, as well as increased presence of parents and volunteers, and proven programs that reduce violence,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. “Armed guards are not the answer.”

Bringing police on campus often leads to unintended consequences, she added: “We have seen that police in schools often become disciplinarians and begin to arrest the children they are there to protect, often for minor behaviors.”

Hutchinson said police duties on campus are a matter of internal management that he considers “a side issue to the most important issue, which is the safety and security of the students.”

Youth organizations plan to stage events across the country next week to bring attention to the views of students, many of them minorities who experience having police in their schools every day.

Keshaundra Neal, 17, a member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, said she was arrested as a 13-year-old and put in a police vehicle for being near a school fight. She said police presence can be helpful at times, but too many officers get involved in minor infractions — with negative effects for students. Harsh discipline, she said, ends up “pushing students out.”

“I think the money could be better used for other programs,” she said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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