[JK: The conflict over the arming of monitors in the Saratoga Springs School District is rooted in the fact that the lives of people’s children are at stake. People on both sides of the issue can easily interpret their opponents in this matter as implicitly threatening their families. In this blog I take the risk of alienating or even angering those who take a different view. I offer my opinion using my best judgment and with the best of intent but I also acknowledge that there are valid arguments to the contrary and I respect those who will disagree with me.
While I have an opinion on the monitor issue and while it is important, it is not the only issue that will determine my vote. Ensuring that we have the best educational services for our children goes beyond whether to arm monitors.]
The Controversy Over Arming Monitors
While there has been much discussion nationally and locally over the best way to keep students and staff safe in schools and proposals for so-called “soft protection” have been part of the conversation, much of the public debate in the Saratoga Springs School District has focused on the question of whether the use of armed grounds monitors provide more safety for students or pose an additional threat to their safety.
Many people are understandably frightened by the level of gun violence in America and they react in very different ways to that fear. In many cases that fear results in the inability to listen to opposing views. School Board meetings where the arming of monitors was discussed often saw members of the audience speak in anger and with contempt of those who disagreed with them. In the most extreme cases those opposed to arming the monitors viewed those who wanted them armed as “gun nuts” and advocates for the NRA. On the other side there were some who angrily viewed their opponents as being unconcerned with the safety of their children.
Complicating the discussion of the role of the monitors is the issue of guns themselves that often triggers strong reactions. For many people whose only contact with guns is through observing the mayhem that regularly appears on the television news, thinking about guns often generates visceral fear. The assumption often is, if guns are present, someone is going to get hurt. This often makes it difficult to have a constructive discussion about the use of guns and gun safety. The reaction to guns in general is a strong factor in the consideration of whether grounds monitors in the Saratoga Springs School District should be armed.
Opposition To Arming Monitors
One of the main fears often expressed by those who oppose the arming of grounds monitors is that a gun will be accidently discharged and cause innocent people to be injured. Shafer Gaston makes this point in a recent post on this blog.
Gaston noted that there are approximately 500 deaths per year attributed to gun accidents. He adds that even trained police have accidents. To support this he links to a web site associated with Police Magazine which is a police trade journal. The web page has anecdotal reports of police accidents but regrettably provides no statistics. The incidents appear to all be from the last two years and some occurred in other countries. Not all involve actual wounding or death. Only one documented incident occurred in a school and no one was injured.
Mr. Gaston is on the mark when he asserts that the availability of guns introduces the risk of accident. Nevertheless, I would expect Mr. Gaston would acknowledge that the issue is not that simple. He asserts that “weapons should only be introduced when the risk of accident is outweighed by the needs of security.” So the challenge lies in assessing both the risk of accidents if monitors are armed and the risk to students if monitors are not armed and an active shooter incident occurs. Statistics can help in trying to make these assessments but they are not the only source of information to consider.
One candidate for the School Board told me that the risk of arming the monitors was such that at the recent community meeting on safety, the District’s insurance agency had recommended against it. This turned out not to be true. The insurance representative instead told the audience “I can lean either way…..It’s a governance issue.” Here is a link to the video of the meeting. The insurance representative can be heard discussing the issue between 1:11:33 and 1:13:33
So what are the factors that increase or decrease the potential threat of an accidental discharge of a gun?
It would seem it is not necessarily the number of guns present that may increase the risk of an accidental shooting but the degree to which those handling the guns are trained to handle them safely. I would argue that a gun in a home where none of the family members are trained in gun safety poses a greater risk of an accidental shooting than in a police station even though there are many more guns present but where there is a culture of gun safety and on-going and extensive training in the handling of guns.
In fact, Mr. Gaston acknowledges that there are mitigating factors regarding the risk of guns. I exchanged emails with Mr. Gaston and learned that he supports having armed SROs at the high school and the middle school. In fact, the school board members who voted to disarm monitors also voted to add an additional SRO to the school district. So the actual policy being debated in the school district is not whether any armed personnel should be allowed in our schools but who and how many should be armed. [JK: The issue of SROs and their training is complicated and will be discussed in a future blog post]
I asked Mr. Gaston if he supported SROs at all the Saratoga Springs School District schools. He responded that he did not. He believes that there is less need for a law enforcement presence with elementary aged children and that those schools are very secure. He also believes that the interaction between the elementary schools and the local police is both frequent and positive. He also believes that the cost associated with supporting that many SROs is prohibitive and makes no sense.
So Mr. Gaston and School Board members do not oppose having armed personnel in the schools. They are only on the record for opposing arming the school monitors.
Who Should be Armed?
Let’s understand that monitors have been providing the basic security for the school district for three decades. They oversee the arrival and departure of students to insure their safety given the presence of moving buses and other vehicles. They spend much of their time patrolling the school grounds to intercept persons who should not be on the school grounds and occasionally to intercept students inappropriately trying to leave the school. Over the decades they have dealt with petty theft, broken up fights, and dealt with contraband drugs. Their efforts have helped create an environment that has allowed the teachers to focus on teaching. In fact, they continue to perform this function today. The fact is that the monitors have encountered conflict in the course of their work for years. The difference now is that they are no longer armed. As far as I can tell, no one has suggested eliminating their positions.
It is my understanding that the district also involves them in some training programs to provide them with support. They will be participating in a training program focused on “de-escalation” which I take to be how to calm potentially volatile events.
The Saratoga Springs Police Department began addressing active shooting issues decades ago. “Active Shooter” incidents involve everything from domestic violence to robberies. Given the increasing incidents of shootings at schools, this began to be a significant focus. This training which often involves simulations often at schools, occurs multiple times each year.
Since most of the monitors currently employed at the district are retired police officers they have been extensively trained during their careers in dealing with armed threats. While people may legitimately argue over the extent that they should go through refresher training, as retired veterans these men/women are not rookies. During their long careers they have had to carry a side arm and be prepared for its potential use on a daily basis. As active police they were required to re-qualify to carry their weapon annually.
The fact that the monitors have a record of thirty years without unholstering a gun let alone discharging it, reflects the vigorous culture of gun safety in which they trained and lived.
This, however, is not the only consideration regarding whether they should be armed.
The grim reality is that most school shootings unfold quickly. Given the lethal nature of weapons currently available to the public, an assailant operating in a school with its dense population is able to inflict a great deal of harm quickly.
I recently spoke with a highly respected retired police officer whose career included serving in a management capacity. He shared with me the difficulties that police would encounter trying to address an on-going shooting at a school. First, they would need to find a secure place to park their car that would not impede other police and emergency vehicles that might follow them. They would then need to find and put on their helmet and locate and secure their tactical weapon. In spite of the fact that they may have participated in exercises at the school, they would not be highly familiar with it. They would need to approach the school with great caution both to protect themselves and to insure that they did nothing to jeopardize the lives of the students and staff. He emphasized what a challenging environment a school is. His essential point was that even if they were near the school when they got the call, it would take them some time to effectively engage the threat.
He noted that the monitors would already be at the school. The monitors are intimately knowledgeable about the geography of the school. They also know many of the people in the school and while they may not know everyone, they will be able to distinguish quickly many people who are not a threat whereas the police responding to the call will have no way of easily assessing anyone they encounter with the exception of the monitors who are dressed to indicate their role as safety staff.
In life there are many things that involve risk. As stated before, the choice before the community is essentially which risk they are willing to live with. Reasonable people will disagree on how to answer this question. While additional “soft protections” should be explored and implemented, in the end these measures may mitigate the chance of a shooting incident but they will not eliminate it. The critical need for a rapid response should a shooting incident occur outweighs for me the risk of having armed monitors on site on a regular basis.
How Many Should Be Armed?
In addition to the question of whether to re-arm the monitors, the other question facing the district is how many armed officers should the district employ?
The district currently employs two armed SROs who are stationed at the High School and Middle School. This provides coverage during the school day to the high school and middle school but leaves the elementary schools uncovered. The SROs do not provide coverage for events occurring outside of the school day such as sports events which the monitors still cover unarmed.
Mr. Shafer reflects many in the community who oppose extending coverage to include these other areas.
Others such as Saratoga Parents for School Safety are seeking comprehensive coverage of all schools.
Ed Cubanski who is a candidate supported by Saratoga Parents For Safe Schools advocates employing SROs in all the schools. He estimates the cost to be roughly $500,000.00.
There are some who would like to rearm the monitors and have them make up the coverage which would potentially be less expensive.
How this would be paid for is unclear. There has been some discussion about the use of grants but it is rare that grants cover ongoing costs. [JK: I will be discussing the funding issue in a separate post].
To be continued…