As the sounds of the gunshots inside Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. reverberate throughout America and shake our society to its core, I can’t help feeling that we’re failing our children.
We aren’t failing our children because we’ve refused to implement sweeping changes to our generally lax gun ownership laws, as many have suggested in Parkland’s aftermath. Unless we’re prepared to implement extremely expensive — not to mention unconstitutional — gun buyback and confiscation programs, gun bans aren’t going to do more than dent the problem.
Instead, we’re failing our children because we’re failing to implement safety measures at their schools.
Many have pointed out that our parents and their parents drove to school with shotguns and deer rifles in the gun racks of their pickup trucks, and mass school shootings were almost unheard of. They’re not incorrect. But this is a different era. The evil that perverts our society today was essentially non-existent in our parents’ and grandparents’ teenage years. And changing times require changing methods.
If I drive to the Scott County Justice Center in Huntsville today, I’ll be greeted by an armed court officer. I’ll have to empty my pockets before going through a metal detector. If the detector alerts on my belt buckle, the officer will conduct a quick scan with his handheld wand to be sure I’m not concealing weapons before I’ll be allowed into the courtroom or any of the judicial offices.
The truth is that such measures weren’t necessary in my parents’ or grandparents’ youth . . . they weren’t even necessary in my youth; I can remember when the first metal detectors were installed at the old Scott County Courthouse, not too many years ago. But changing times have necessitated changing methods.
No one questions the extra layers of security at court houses because it’s deemed necessary. Courtroom drama makes courthouses ripe environments for violence — newly-convicted felons intent on harming members of the jury, victims and perpetrators of domestic violence in the same building, judges and witnesses who are targets for gunmen fueled by vengeance.
But at what point do we also deem it necessary that our schools have those same added layers of security. Actually, isn’t that point long past?
The primary reason why Americans have been unwilling to beef up school security is the cost of doing so. There is one courthouse in Scott County, but 10 public schools, if Huntsville’s elementary-middle complex and Oneida’s middle-high complex are counted as separate schools.
And so, in the immediate aftermath of Columbine, when our generation’s conscience was first shaken by a mass shooting in school, we got serious about additional tax dollars and federal grants to place more SROs in schools . . . and then we let the moment pass. Nineteen years and six mass shootings (at K-12 schools; 11 if colleges and universities are included) later, and we’re hardly shaken at all by a mass shooting.
That alone — our reaction — should scare us. Because the reality is that in many of Scott County’s public schools, anyone can walk in off the street and walk directly into the hallways and classrooms with no resistance in the form of locked doors or armed guards. Meanwhile, there are occasional instances of students — yes, even right here in our sleepy, rural community — making threats of violence against teachers and classmates.
The cost to place armed guards in our school would be significant, but is there really a price too high for the safety and welfare of our students?
Writing for the Washington Examiner last week, Tom Rogan estimated that it would cost $10.7 billion annually to place two armed officers in each of America’s elementary, middle and high schools. There’s certainly a costly endeavor, but it’s a drop in the bucket of a federal budget that included $4 trillion in spending for fiscal year 2017. Discretionary spending alone tops $1 trillion. And, for perspective that will either surprise you or make you mad, or both, consider this: the U.S. spends more than $40 billion per year to police Afghanistan, yet can’t spend roughly one-fourth of that here at home to police our schools.
What if local governments decided to stop waiting on federal action that may never come and took it upon themselves to act? Many metropolitan areas have, but cash-strapped governments in more rural areas largely have not. Rogan’s estimate was based on an annual salary of $50,000 per officer, which is much too high for rural areas. Based on salaries for law enforcement in Scott County, for example, the cost would only be a little more than half that. A debate over whether law enforcement officers are making enough in our area can be had (even though it’s hardly a debate; the easy answer is that they’re not), but that’s a debate for another day. The fact is that Scott County could place two armed security officers in each of its schools for an annual cost of less than a quarter-million dollars. With a penny of property tax generating roughly $30,000, that’s just about eight cents on the tax rate.
For less than a dime on the tax rate, Scott County could drastically increase a security presence at school. Two armed security officers at each school, five days a week, from the time the first students arrive until the time the last students go home. It wouldn’t make our schools attack-proof, but it would make them much safer.
Obviously, this is a theoretical discussion. In a community that is already tax-weary, such measures aren’t likely to be taken unless they’re completely funded by federal grant dollars. But as long as we’re being theoretical, that theoretical question above deserves consideration: Is there really a price too high for the safety and welfare of our students?
ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.