THe called on more soldiers to enter schools after two teachers and 19 children were fatally shot in Uvalde (Texas) May 24.
Texas governor Greg Abbott encouraged schools and law enforcement officers to be present on campuses. Uvalde School District Superintendent said that they plan to continue doing so this fall. Kentucky will require hundreds of additional school resource officers to be employed before August in order to comply with a state law which requires that there be an SRO at every Kentucky K-12 campus. And the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), which trains school-based officers, is advocating for “every school at every level” to have a trained school resource officer on campus whenever school is in session.
Mo Canady, executive director of NASRO, says responding to school shootings is “a critical part of the job” for school resource officers. “When that comes to visit a school, there’s nothing more important for the SRO to be engaged in,” he says.
But the trend of putting more armed police officers on campuses in response to school shootings has come even though it’s not clear that the presence of an SRO makes a mass shooting on campus less likely. This latest effort comes in spite of the fact that Uvalde was not stopped by armed police officers. This has made the school police’s response a national scandal.
An ‘abject failure’ in Uvalde
Pete Arredondo is third from the left during Uvalde’s School Police Chief, who stands in front of the Robb Elementary school, Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday May 26, 2022.
In testimony before a Texas state Senate committee on Tuesday, Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, called the police response to the Uvalde shooting “an abject failure.” Officers at the school waited over an hour to enter the classrooms and confront the gunman—a decision that was “antithetical to everything we have learned over the last two decades since the Columbine massacre” in 1999, McCraw said.
Best practices call for responding officers to first “stop the killing,” and move in to confront the attacker as soon as possible. Officers should “immediately move into action to isolate, distract or neutralize the threat, even if that means one officer acting alone,” according to an active-shooter training by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
McCraw placed the blame squarely on the school district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, whom he identified as the on-scene commander during the shooting. McCraw said three minutes after the gunman entered the building, there were enough armed officers wearing body armor “to isolate, distract and neutralize the subject.” But instead, officers waited one hour and 14 minutes to enter the classroom and kill the gunman.
“The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering Room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander, who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children,” McCraw said Tuesday. “The officers had weapons; the children had none. Officers had body armor, children didn’t. The officers had training; the subject had none.”
Three minutes after the gunman opened fire, eight Uvalde Police Department officers, and three Uvalde Consolidated Independent Schools District Police Department members, Arredondo included, entered the school. according to a timelineMcCraw shares McCraw’s Tuesday post.
McCraw faulted Arredondo for waiting for the arrival of a radio, rifles, shields, a SWAT team, and “a key that was never needed,” alleging that the classroom door was unlocked all along, but no one had checked.
Arredondo defended his response and contradicted some of McCraw’s assertions in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune. He said he did not consider himself the incident commander and didn’t “issue any orders” telling officers not to breach the building. He told the Tribune that the classroom door was locked and could not be kicked in, as he tried “dozens” of keys to unlock it. A lawyer for Arredondo did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment on Wednesday.
Arredondo was placed on administrative leave by the Uvalde school superintendent while the district waits for the outcome of the investigation into the shooting.
Canady says that NASRO had trained officers in the Uvalde district in the past, but he doesn’t know if that included officers who responded to the shooting at Robb Elementary. He says it’s possible that best practices weren’t followed by officers during the shooting response, but he doesn’t have enough details yet to assess what happened in Uvalde.
Increased armed police presence and school shootings
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 51% of schools were equipped with a law enforcement officer who is sworn and regularly carries a firearm. This was up from 43% during the 2015-16 school years. A majority of schools also had at least one security officer on their campuses during the 2019-20 academic year. That’s up from just 42% schools that did so in 2005-06. In response to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Doug High School, Parkland (Fla.), more schools had armed guards than ever before.
Meanwhile, the number of shootings with casualties at K-12 schools has increased since the 2012-13 school year—when there were 22 shootings, including the deadly attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School—and reached 93 shootings in 2020-21, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Canady believes that SROs can prove to be valuable assets for schools if they are well-trained and carefully chosen. “You’ve got to be prepared that if you hear gunfire in your school, or you hear something else going on, that the switch flips instantly, and that you become the best tactical officer your department can hope to offer,” Canady says. “There’s no one out there that can be perfect in all of those roles. But we’re looking for the best that we can get.”
But training aside, it’s not clear that school resource officers actually improve safety. Researchers at Hamline University and Metropolitan State University, Minnesota looked into 133 incidents of school shootings in 2021. Study concluded that there wasn’t a correlation between deterrence and the presence or absence of an armed officer. However, most school shooting victims are high school students, raising questions as to whether school security can be improved.
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An SRO actually was present on campus at the time of the Parkland school shooting, in which 17 were killed. However, he failed to stop him. Two police officers from Santa Fe High School, Texas were later praised for their courage after confronting a shooter at school and capturing him in less than four minutes. Two staff members and eight students were also killed.
“We must face the truth—more miliaritized school environments do not address the root causes of mass violence,” Andrew Hairston, Education Justice Project Director for Texas Appleseed, said in a statement after the Uvalde shooting.
Canady points to other examples of officers stopping school shooters—including a 2018 shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland, in which the gunman died by suicide during a confrontation with a school resource officer after killing one student and injuring another. In 2018, another Dixon police officer shot and injured a gunman at high school graduation rehearsal. The man fled the scene.
‘A Herculean task’
Many schools don’t have the same focus on police officers. Minneapolis schools and Portland schools, Ore. removed officers from their campuses in the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder. They did this because they were concerned about the overpolicing of Black students.
Jeff Godown, who was the school police chief in Oakland, Calif., supported a vote by the school board, inspired by years of community activism, to eliminate his department—and his job—in June 2020.
Today, Godown still thinks it’s not necessary to have armed officers patrolling school hallways, dealing with day-to-day discipline issues. He understands if parents or teachers would feel more comfortable having an officer stand guard outside a school, but he worries that it’s not a realistic, or affordable solution.
“Are you telling me that we need an armed police officer at every school—elementary and middle school—in the United States of America?” says Godown, who is now the interim police chief of California State University, San Bernardino. “That would be a Herculean task to have that many officers assigned to those schools.”
He says it’s a mistake to put all the responsibility on SROs and on school “hardening” efforts, without also addressing access to assault rifles used by the gunmen in Uvalde and Parkland. “I see no need for that gun in circulation for a civilian population,” he says, noting that the use of such weapons creates additional challenges for responding officers, who are likely armed with only a handgun.
“Most of these people that come into the schools are heavily armed, such as in this case, and sometimes the officers are out-gunned from the word Go,” Godown says. “They’re going to be the first line of defense,” he says, of school resource officers. “But you can’t expect them to be the only line of defense.”
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