The shooting last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School has prompted a great deal of debate across the country about gun control and access to mental health services.  The incident has also prompted increased scrutiny of school safety practices.  Of course, it is critical that schools review their lockdown procedures and other security measures on an ongoing basis, and ensure that staff members are well trained in those protocols.  School safety experts generally agree, however, that the security measures in place at Sandy Hook were appropriate and reasonable, and indeed saved lives.  Of course, all systems have limitations.  A criminal intent on breaking in at any cost will be difficult for any institution (other than a maximum security prison) to stop.  In fact, children are far safer in school than in other public places such as shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, playgrounds, etc.  And they are exponentially more likely to be killed in an auto accident than in an incident like the one that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Schools could increase police presence on campus.  Research indicates, however, that seeing armed police officers roaming the school can be scary for young children and undermine their feeling of safety and security. Moreover, those who criticize districts for spending too much on administrative as opposed to classroom expenses should be aware that school security, including on-campus police officers, is an administrative expense (which for many districts, is not insignificant).

Some, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, believe that allowing school personnel to bring guns to school is a valid solution.  They claim that a school employee with a gun who was properly trained could have stopped the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting before he was able to kill so many people.   Statistically, however, it is far more likely that a legally purchased gun will be used not in defense of but against its owner or a member of his or her household (and by analogy the school it is intended to protect).

Even if this hypothetical gun-wielding employee turned out to be the James Bond in Governor Perry’s fantasy, i.e. capable of exercising good judgment and perfect accuracy under extreme pressure, allowing employees to bring guns into the workplace, and especially into schools, is a very bad idea.  The chance that most schools will ever experience anything like what happened at Sandy Hook is extremely slight.  Most schools, however, do experience some incidents of violence each year.  Add guns to this environment, regardless of who owns them, and the outcomes of those incidents are likely to be far worse.  It is a travesty that the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shootings was able to gain access to legally purchased guns.  Locating more guns on-site and making them even more accessible will only escalate violence in our schools.  Moreover, if seeing police officers with guns on campus undermines children’s sense of safety and security, imagine what it would do to a child’s sense of security to receive a poor score on a homework assignment from a teacher packing heat.

If we want to invest in making our schools safer, we need to look at the areas of greatest risk to our students.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the greatest risk to students does not come from the outside.  The greatest risk comes from individuals students encounter on-campus with a colorable reason for being there.  That said, the one area in which many public school systems could be doing better is in conducting background checks of school employees, volunteers, contractors and others who come into contact with students on campus.  That subject, however, warrants a separate, more detailed discussion.  Accordingly, stay tuned for Part II, which will examine the ways in which some States’ and districts’ policies concerning background checks could be amended and/or supplemented to better protect students.  As for the adequacy of existing school security measures, and the suggestion that teachers be allowed to carry guns to school, please let me know you think.