School safety in an unsafe world

Jan. 30, 2013 @ 04:38 AM

As a former school principal, I know well the trials and tribulations of school safety: How much is too much? How much is too little?

And as an American, I have followed the developments surrounding Sandy Hook Elementary School with horror and disgust. Like you, I ask, “How can this happen in our country, over and over again?”

Before I go to write more about my opinion of one solution proposed by many people (placing armed security officers in schools), I should let you know a little about my relationship with guns. This may stop you from reading any more; I hope not, as until we approach our problems from all sides in a spirit of collaboration rather than turf protection, we will not find solutions.

The truth is, I have no relationship with guns. I do not understand their appeal (other than to hunters – I love my fishing rods). I do not live in fear of home invasion. I do not live in fear of government actions against the people. I do not own a gun.

Having no relationship with guns, I do not see more guns as the solution. I do not believe that armed security guards will improve school safety. I do not believe that schools should be turned into fortresses. I do not believe that the presence of armed security guards would deter madmen from their madness anyway.

However, I also doubt that we can reliably identify those madmen, no matter how much more sophisticated our mental health institutions may become. Despite my dislike of video games and violent movies, I know too many people who enjoy those pursuits but don’t go murdering first graders to find the answer in banning them. And, although I am sure that the “right to bear arms” is as limited a right as “freedom of speech (e.g., you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre),” I know that we can’t legislate guns away. How then can I promise my students and parents that they can come to school without fear of mass murder?

I have been principal of two middle schools that were staffed with police officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. I loved working with each of the officers, not because they carried pistols, but because they provided a different perspective of police officers to my students, most of whom lived in impoverished, high crime neighborhoods. At school, students were able to interact with those officers as helpers, motivators, and leaders rather than as the “po-po.” The police officers expanded the students’ world to include working with the police for a better community.

So yes, put police officers in every school. The officers with whom I worked were consummate professionals, maximizing their opportunities to expand consciousness about the roles of police officers. And, if the pistol each carried on her/his hip helped families feel safer, then they served an even greater purpose.

But, please note that I have specified “police officers” throughout. Not “armed security guards,” but professionals who are more than a hired gun waiting for “something” to happen. Fear begets fear. Police officers are a benefit to a school beyond their pistols; armed security guards should be employed in prisons.

Now, we need to figure out how to pay for adequate school staffing, including police officers … but that is a matter for a future article.


Dr. Mark Robinson serves as an adjunct professor in the Gardner-Webb University Graduate School of Education. He is a retired elementary and middle school principal and a former school psychologist and counselor. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. and teaches at the GWU Charlotte campus.