Shafer Gaston: Guns In Schools Do Not Equal A Safer Environment

The School Board made the right decision when it decided not to re-arm school monitors this fall. This is not only my opinion on the subject based on what I have read; it is based on the authority and responsibilities of a school district to its community.

First of all, I am not someone who is afraid of or hates firearms. But I do understand that weapons should only be introduced when the risk of accident is outweighed by the needs of security.

I spent the majority of my adult life in the US Navy. Sometimes I carried a sidearm or a rifle, as did others around me. Every time we armed out, it was because of a specific need, and as soon as we were done, back into the locker all weapons went, because firearms are inherently dangerous – at a rate of about 500 deaths per year due to accidents. These aren’t just irresponsible owners; these include trained, proficient law enforcement officers, and it happens right here in our own community.

We, as a military organization, elected not to take unnecessary risk. I would appreciate the same consideration in our schools.

Every additional weapon on campus increases the risk of accidental discharge. Comparatively, the risk of a student being killed in a mass shooting at a school in the USA is fairly low: 100 in the last ten years, or ten per year. Of those 13 incidents of mass shooting that specifically targeted children (vice workplace employee-on-employee violence), 5 perpetrators were students or recent students who entered the school without challenge. 6 perpetrators committed suicide – presumably undeterred by the prospect of armed resistance.

Compared to 500 or so accidental discharge deaths a year, 3000 auto fatalities a year for teenagers, or 5000 suicides per year for those under 25, it seems like there may be better areas to direct our efforts.

Nonetheless, parents are concerned about school security, probably because we feel like it is the one place where we have little control over our children, and our gut instinct is to turn to the police. Reliance on regular law enforcement in schools isn’t without controversy, and organizations that promulgate current best practices advocate for methods that include a combination of training and physical access control, as well as mental health.

While there have been instances of law enforcement in schools preventing incidents, there are just as many success stories from the passive methods. Most importantly, by paying attention to warning signs, providing community intervention services, and other “soft” techniques, we have stopped many of these tragedies before they occur – the measures taken at the outbreak of violence should be a last resort.

Note that the entire debate discussed above is about whether School Resource Officers, who are by definition active, sworn law enforcement officers, are effective. Nowhere do armed guards, no matter what their background, appear in the literature.

All of the information above has been studied, restudied, debated, and used to enact policy. However, chances are, if you have been caught up in the local debate, you are not an expert on what makes a good school, and certainly not a safe school. I am not either. I can secure a pier, I can secure a boat, but I have never been trained in securing a school, and I have certainly never participated in any comprehensive study on school security. Neither has anyone on the school board, as far as I know.

Luckily, the New York State Education Department, from which all School Boards derive their authority and their mandate, provides guidelines for school systems on how they should operate.

NYSED is not a law enforcement organization. Neither they, nor any of the school boards over which they have authority, are in the business of arming and training security personnel. That is why in their guidelines they state that “if a school determines that it needs to have an armed professional on school grounds, SROs are the only school personnel of any type who should be armed.”

School Resource Officers are so much more than a “good guy with a gun”, or even regular law enforcement. They are trained to deal with psychological issues faced by teenagers, to work with faculty and school staff, and to support the learning environment. Most importantly, they derive their authority and ongoing training from a commissioned law enforcement organization. Their selection is determined by law enforcement, and they participate in continuous education and certification. This protects the school system from unneeded liability by leaving law enforcement to the police.

From my background in submarining, I know sometimes there may be situations that require you to put aside doctrine for immediate needs. However, you must be able to explain, after the fact, what exactly you knew that meant you needed to disregard studied, proven expertise by people who were hired to give you the right answer. My anecdotal evidence is that most naval officers haven’t been vindicated when disregarding established doctrine.

Additionally, I know that a response to being challenged of “well, we’ve always done it that way” or “well, nothing bad has happened yet” is a poor way to operate in a world that changes – especially when the well-being of our children is involved.

Like it or not, unless we think there is something particularly dangerous about Saratoga Springs, there is no reason to introduce unnecessary risk. The school system exists to raise the knowledge, skill, and opportunity of all people in our community, and that is exactly what the school board is doing by following recognized, holistic best practices for the school environment. Keep doing things the right way and we will stay at the forefront of educational practices and success stories.


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