Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of elementary schools in Fairfax County. The county has 139, not 39. This version has been corrected.
With emotions high a week after a massacre at a Connecticut elementary school left 20 students and six staff members dead, a controversial proposal to place armed police in each of the nation’s schools drew mixed reactions from Washington area educators and brought another wave of scrutiny to how security is managed at area schools.
Few officials knew details of the proposal offered in a speech Friday by the head of the National Rifle Association, but the concept of armed police in every school added another spark to what is likely to be months of debate over how to best protect students in the country’s 100,000 public schools.
School systems did not take official positions on the issue Friday, but some elected officials’ opinions reflected a clear division on focusing on legislative change vs. a shift in schools’ approaches.
In Fairfax County, officials already knew how much it would cost to put officers in their 139 elementary schools: $20 million a year. Fairfax, like other suburban systems, assigns armed police — “school resource officers” — to middle and high schools. It has 53 such officers, spokesman John Torre said.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said she is not immediately convinced that more are needed. The Newtown tragedy is clearly cause for reexamination, she said, but she added that schools should carefully research their options and not rush to make changes. It’s important that elementary schools feel warm and welcoming, she said. “I wonder what message we send to these children if they come into a place with an armed officer,” she said.
Across the nation, there are “in excess of 10,000” gun-carrying police assigned to schools, according to Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Still, few officers are based in elementary schools, nationally or locally, according to experts.
The District’s public school system appears to assign more police to its campuses than do school systems elsewhere in the region: There are 100 sworn school resource officers and 300 security guards in the city’s 123 schools.
A survey of other school systems showed that there are 27 sworn officers in Loudoun County; 22 in Prince George’s County; 19 in Prince William County; and six in Alexandria. Many school systems employ security personnel in large numbers.
In Montgomery County, there are six officers in 202 schools, and most security is handled by 200 specialists who do not carry guns, said Bob Hellmuth, head of school safety and security. Board of Education member Michael A. Durso (District 5), a former high school principal, said bringing police onto every campus is “extraordinarily impractical” at first glance.
Durso said the number of officers was scaled back for budget reasons, estimating that salary and benefits for one position costs $100,000 and that the system would need 200 more officers to cover all schools.
If the cost were federally funded, he said, that would change the equation,“but that’s easier said than done.”
He said that more attention to mental-health issues, lockdown drills and evacuation procedures was important. The NRA’s proposal struck him as aggressive, “just kind of going in the other direction: Pretty soon everybody’s armed. Does that make us safer?”
Still, he said, “I do think the increased presence or availability of police officers at schools is certainly something that should be looked at. I don’t know that we can cover every school, but if individuals are aware of a police presence, that would certainly be a deterrent.”
The idea of beefing up police presence in schools appealed to some officials.
Verjeana M. Jacobs, head of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, said that she was open to the idea of adding armed police but that “it should only be trained officers . . . not support personnel, not teachers.”
Jacobs, who worked for 23 years as a corrections officer, said that she knows it would be costly but that “at the end of the day, you cannot put a price on safety.” The Connecticut shooting and other tragedies, she said, are “a call for help to do something different.”
Earlier in the week, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) created a furor when he said the state should consider arming teachers and other school staff. Senate Democrats launched a petition against the idea on Thursday.
Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin said Friday that there is a difference between arming officers and teachers. “If we want to talk about arming police officers . . . that’s part of a thoughtful conversation that can be had,” he said.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals and its sister organization, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, issued a statement this week against arming school staff. But the NRA’s proposal is different, said Mark Terry, president of the elementary school group, because it calls for trained officers.
He said most principals would have mixed feelings. “You really don’t want your school to be seen as a fortress, but we definitely want to protect our kids.”
For those who may support more police in schools, one question is funding. “If it were paid by the federal government, that certainly makes it more attractive to schools,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. But that alone, he said, is not the answer to preventing school shootings.
Having an officer might help deter someone intent on doing harm, he said, but “when we see what has happened in the past with mass murders, it’s not likely that one person could make a difference.”
Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia professor who studies school safety, said research does not show that the presence of armed police makes schools safer — or even that students feel safer.
“The larger problem here is they are putting the armed guards in the wrong places,” he said. “Children are far more likely to be shot outside of school rather than in school.”
Emma Brown, Errin Haines, Laura Vozzella and John Wagner contributed to this report.