Meeting with schools, police evaluates school safety
By: Carol Enright
A group of over 100 members of the Safe Schools Partnership – including school administrators, police officers, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Don Senti, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts – met in a closed meeting on Dec. 20 to discuss how best to address security in schools following a shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 20 students and six staff members dead.
Earlier in the week, St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch suggested training and arming school employees as one way to confront the threat of armed intruders. But, at the Dec. 20 meeting, when Fitch asked for a show of hands from those who might be interested in discussing the idea, nary a hand went up.
“For the most part, they pretty well dismissed the idea of arming school personnel,” said Dennis Griffith, assistant superintendent for administrative services for the Rockwood School District.
In contrast, St. Louis County Police Officer Randy Vaughn said that when Fitch asked if any school districts were considering adding more school resource officers (SROs), or armed police officers, at their schools, “a large amount of hands went up.”
“Everyone’s thinking about doing that,” said Vaughn.
Vaughn clarified that Fitch’s comments about arming school personnel were “put out as a worst-case scenario” – one option for closing the gap between when a shooter enters a school and police arrive on the scene. The ideal situation, said Fred Crawford, chief of security for the Parkway School District, is “an armed police officer in each school.”
Both Rockwood and Parkway have SROs at their high schools and middle schools. Currently, neither district has SROs at its elementary schools – largely because the cash-strapped districts can’t afford the $1 million-plus that it would cost to do so. Crawford acknowledged that this is a “pretty hefty” price tag.
“But what price is the safety of our kids?” he asked.
“A lot of schools are financially strapped right now,” said Griffith, “and I don’t believe there’s a higher priority than school safety.”
Crawford and Griffith back the idea of the Safe Schools Partnership forming a legislative committee that would push for government funding of additional SROs. Crawford said he supports pursuing funding at the federal, state or local level to “take away the anxiety from school boards and from police departments to try and fill security positions.”
Currently, guns in schools is a hot topic in the Missouri Legislature. Two dozen Missouri lawmakers are behind a bill that would allow teachers and administrators with concealed gun permits to carry weapons in schools. While local schools have shown no support for the proposal, Griffith believes the time is ripe to broach the topic of state funding for additional school security with Missouri lawmakers.
“It’s a shame that a tragedy, a horrific tragedy such as what happened in Newtown, has to cause this conversation to be elevated,” said Griffith. “But it is an opportunity to strike while the iron’s hot.”
With school locking systems, intruder alert systems and comprehensive crises plans, Rockwood and Parkway seem to be on the forefront of school safety. But Griffith acknowledged that no security plan is failsafe.
“I don’t think there’s ever a plan to prevent a crazy person who is intent on killing himself or others. Even if you have an armed person right there, it does not guarantee that things are going to turn out the way you want them to turn out,” Griffith said.
The Safe Schools Partnership is set to meet again on Jan. 31 to revisit the issue of school safety and discuss next steps.