The nation was brought together in mourning last December when 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at a Connecticut elementary school.
It was the second deadliest shooting in American history, prompting press conferences and policy suggestions aimed at preventing another such massacre. The National Rifle Association made the largest waves when, in response to Sandy Hook, the lobbying group's Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre called for armed police officers posted in every school.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun," LaPierre said at a press conference, "is a good guy with a gun."
From armed guards to arming teachers themselves, the question of what can and should be done to better protect students elicits strong responses. What is prudent and feasible remains subject to much debate in legislatures across the country.
South Dakota's state government has been quickest to move on the NRA's suggestion, enacting a law to allow school employees, hired security personnel or volunteers who complete a training program to carry firearms in schools.
Similar bills have been proposed in the Missouri House of Representatives this session. House Bill 70 would allow any teacher or school administrator with a valid concealed carry permit to possess firearms on school grounds without consent of school boards. Another, HB 276, aims to create voluntary "school protection officer" designations that, with completion of a training program and district approval, would allow the "officers" to carry weapons on school grounds and detain anyone he or she believes has violated state laws or school policies.
Dr. Kathleen Nolan, a program associate and lecturer at Princeton University who has extensively studied police presence in schools, disagrees with such proposed legislation.
"It's an irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction to the fear we are all experiencing. I think it's frightening, the idea of putting arms in teachers hands. First, it's impossible to ensure school personnel have the proper training, but perhaps even more importantly schools personnel and teachers lack the experience. No one knows how they will respond in a situation with a crazed gunman," Nolan said.
The Missouri bills are different from the School Resource Officer program, which currently has about 210 dues-paying members in Missouri and more than 10,000 nationally. SROs are commissioned police officers with additional training in the organization's "triad" of responsibilities: teacher, counselor and law enforcement officer.
Mo Cannady, executive director of National Association of School Resource Officers, advocates for SRO or school-based policing programs, "not just something that puts an armed guard in the school."
"We don't feel that is a long-term solution," Cannady said.
Implementation of an SRO program at schools nationwide is estimated to cost between $2-$3 billion, while in Missouri, where schools are currently underfunded by about $600 million, the estimate is $100 million in added expenses.
Page 2 of 4 - Cannady acknowledges cost considerations make an SRO an unrealistic solution for some districts and supports communities being able to make decisions for themselves, as opposed to action by the federal or state government. Both the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Missouri School Boards Associations referred questions to the Missouri Center for Education Safety, a public-private partnership between the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the Office of Homeland Security and MSBA, which shared that sentiment.
"It needs to be a local decision by the school boards and they need to make sure they have good input and have good discussions with public safety officials and teachers and do this with eyes wide open," Executive Director Paul Fennewald said.
According to the Superintendent of the largest school district in the lake area, Camdenton R-III has three school resource officers. "The SROs are employees of the City of Camdenton. We reimburse the city for a portion of their salary and benefits while they are stationed on campus during the school year. The district spends approximately $113,000 for this program," Tim Hadfield said. Other law enforcement entities including Camden County Sheriff's Dept., the City of Osage Beach and the city of Sunrise Beach monitor other buildings within the district on the outlying campuses.
Camendton R-III district has discussed adding more armed guards but has not many any decision on the topic. As far as the thought of arming teachers within the district, Hadfield said that the districts policy currently prohibits employees of the school district from possessing weapons on school property. Hadfield considers Camdenton fortunate to have armed police officers who are highly trained in the school buildings. The Camdenton R-III district has added security upgrades into the proposed bond issue that will be on the April 2 ballot. The issue proposes a no tax levy total increase but would allow the district to upgrade one elementary school while building a new one and add safety enhancements to other school buildings.
Much talk on school safety has been centered around mental health. The National Association of School Psychologists issued a report in January advising schools to focus on security solutions such as building entrances, hallway monitoring and better check-in and check-out systems for visitors. It also recommends increasing mental health services and supports in schools, advising a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, one school psychologist for every 500-700 students and one school social worker for every 400 students. The Camdenton R-III district follows the guidelines from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education when it comes to guidance and counseling staff.
"We have highly trained school counselors. We have a solid relationship with resources outside of our District when needs of our students might be greater than the resources we can offer. Our staff members have also been trained by outside mental health professionals in the past in order to help meet the needs of our students at the classroom level," Hadfield said. "We have school-wide processes at the building level as the 'Leader in Me' and 'Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports' which can impact all students."
Page 3 of 4 - The Eldon School District employs one full-time resource officer but supplements the SRO's presence with others from the police department for school activities and events.
Eldon Police Chief Rodney Fair said the district covers the costs of employing the resource officer through the school year. During the summer, the SRO works as a road officer for the city.
The district has undergone a number of security changes in the last several years, including tightening up their policies since Sandy Hook.
"Enhancing security is an ongoing effort on the part of the district and the department," he said. "School security is a priority. By using officers from the department and the SRO that increases our presence, gives all officers an opportunity to interact with the students and it familiarizes the students with all of the officers."
The School of the Osage school district has one school resource officer on the Osage Beach Campus who is employed by the Osage Beach Police Department. The resource officer position is a part of a "longstanding partnership between the district and Osage Beach," according to Superintendent Brent Depeé.
Officers from the Lake Ozark Police Department perform random foot patrols during the school day and during evening activities along with being on campus before and after each school day. Depee said the district is currently focusing on its resources and making the school buildings more secure. He added that the district values its partnership with Lake Ozark and Osage Beach Police Departments and looks forward to future opportunities to expand the partnership. As far as arming teachers, Depee said that the district believes in protecting the students, but believes that means stopping the assailant prior to getting to the classroom. The district's insurance policy carrier prohibits anyone outside of an armed security guard from carrying a weapon. The district made changes to its emergency crisis plan during the 2011-2012 school year and will make other changes as needed.
"Since the incident at Sandy Hook, the district has made changes in building security in all of our buildings. The district also has developed plans to enhance security in the district’s buildings, to make them more secure and in line to the double entry at our Middle School building . In addition, Lake Ozark and Osage Beach police departments have provided additional training for our staff, with more training planned in the future," Depee said. "The increased presence of Osage Beach and Lake Ozark police departments has also been a change.All staff members have been reminded of their duties to be vigilant about keeping doors locked and to report any suspicious activity to administration and/or law enforcement. The district has also instituted bi-annual building, district, and outside agency safety meetings this year."
Page 4 of 4 - The National Association of School Psychologists issued a report in January advising schools to focus on security solutions such as building entrances, hallway monitoring and better check-in and check-out systems for visitors. It also recommends increasing mental health services and supports in schools, advising a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, one school psychologist for every 500-700 students and one school social worker for every 400 students.
Nolan believes most schools are not meeting those targets and said even those ratios fall short of what is needed, arguing that more attention is needed for "subtle" discipline problems, such as bullying, as well as mental health issues, all of which can be precursors to violence.
"Some forms are subtle and it's apparent that school administrators and teachers are not picking up on how pugnacious this is," she said.
"Students who are alienated and not getting necessary attention and support, with mental health issues going unrecognized, can end up being the shooters," she said.
A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on violence stated the odds of a person ages 5-18 being victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was 1 in 2.5 million. The last time a Missouri student died in a school shooting was at Parkway South Junior High in 1983, when according to the Associated Press a case of bullying resulted in a murder-suicide.
Since then, hundreds of others have died from other causes, Fennewald said, including lack of working smoke detectors, drinking and driving and lack of seatbelt use.
"Let's take a holistic view of this," he said. "How are our children dying? [...] There are a lot of other things if we want to focus on student safety, things we can do to make our communities safer without putting more resource officers in our schools."
The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.