Armed guards, surveillance to welcome students back
PARKLAND, Fla. — Fortified by fences and patrolled by more armed personnel, schools will open their doors to students for the start of the new year with a heightened focus on security intended to ease fears about deadly campus shootings.
The massacre in Parkland, Florida, one of the most lethal in U.S. history, unnerved school administrators across the country, who devoted the summer to reinforcing buildings and hiring security.
In Florida, armed guards will be posted on almost every campus. In Indiana, some schools will be getting hand-held metal detectors. In western New York state, some schools plan to upgrade their surveillance cameras to include facial recognition.
Six months after the rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, public schools have embraced expensive and sometimes controversial safety measures.
“If we can find the resources, and if our taxpayers are willing to support us, then we will do everything in our power to try to create a sense of normalcy and ease,” said Donald E. Fennoy II, superintendent of the school
district in Palm Beach County, Florida, which borders Parkland.
Palm Beach is nearly doubling its school police force — and asking voters to support a property tax increase to help pay for it. But, Fennoy added, “we know that schools are still the safest places for the majority of our kids.”
The wave of efforts marks the latest escalation of security enhancements prompted by horrifying and highly publicized school attacks. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, administrators began routinely practicing lockdown drills and hiring police officers. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, districts installed more buzzer systems and limited points of entry on campuses.
“It’s eerily similar, what I’m hearing today to what we experienced in our community,” Guy M. Grace, director of security and emergency planning for the school district in Littleton, Colorado, which neighbors Columbine, said last week to a Florida commission tasked with making statewide recommendations on school safety.
Schools opened with metal detectors last week in Marshall County, Kentucky, where two students were killed at a school shooting in January. New York City has considered expanding the use of metal detectors, though some students worry they disproportionately target schools with students of color.
No policy has caused more debate than allowing teachers to carry weapons, a proposal pushed for years by the National Rifle Association and supported by President Donald Trump in February. Proponents filed a flurry of bills in state legislatures to enact such programs this year, but only Florida adopted legislation to allow schools to arm and train “guardians” on campus — school employees who are not full-time teachers.
At least 10 states allow districts to arm teachers and other staff members. One of the states is Texas, where a shooting at Santa Fe High School in May left 10 people dead. Gov. Greg Abbott responded by proposing more spending on police officers and armed guards on campus; the Santa Fe school district accepted donations of metal detectors, protective vests and other police equipment before the new school year.
In rural southwestern Virginia, the Lee County school district is now allowing teachers and staff members who already hold concealed weapon permits to opt for more training in order to carry guns on campus — the first district in the state to do so. Brian T. Austin, the superintendent,
called the policy a fiscal decision: The district cannot afford to hire police officers for all of its 11 schools and still pay for new roofs and other needed repairs.
“We were trying to address a local need in the most fiscally responsible manner,” Austin said. “We had no intention of being the first in Virginia to do this.”
He likened opposition to the policy to criticism that outlier districts faced years ago when they began hiring school resource officers to patrol their campuses. Now, a lot of high schools and middle schools expect to have one. “School culture has changed as the wider culture has changed,” he said.
Still, teachers remain worried about being asked to assume security duties. A recent survey of 1,000 public schoolteachers by Educators for Excellence, an advocacy group, found that 52 percent of respondents strongly oppose arming teachers. The same survey found that gun violence is educators’ top safety concern in schools.
Melissa Dorcemus, a ninth-grade special-education math teacher in Manhattan, said she wanted police available to respond quickly to a shooting. But schools must otherwise remain safe places for students to learn, and a place where they can find respite from guns if they live in violent communities, she said.
“I know that guns have this illusion of making people feel safer, but if a depressed kid comes into a school, having an armed guard with a gun is not going to help that student,” said Dorcemus, 30. “I don’t know where the line is of making people safe — spending money on a resource that won’t be utilized every day like an armed guard — versus a counselor that would be utilized every day.”
A police officer walks past newly installed portable classrooms at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.