The Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. split the country, provoking dueling—and quick—responses even as gun control was already being considered in some areas of the nation, including Illinois.
From one side there has been a chorus for more security in our nation’s schools. More police. More metal detectors. On the other were strong calls to curb nationwide gun ownership, an idea that gained even more traction in the shooting’s wake while the nation’s largest gun rights advocate, the National Rifle Association, kept oddly quiet. A Dec. 27 Gallup poll found that although 58 percent of Americans favor strengthening federal gun laws, the NRA still has the support of 54 percent of the country.
The group, praised by many Americans and demonized by others, is usually fast with a response for greater leniency in gun laws to shore up against massacres and the street violence in cities like Chicago, which just recorded its 500th homicide in 2012. The toll included more than 100 people under the age of 21.
But by the time the NRA held its crowded and anticipated news conference, a week had passed since Adam Lanza brought his Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle through the front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators, as well as his mother and himself. That Friday, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre broke the group’s silence and went public with a plan to stem school shootings.
The idea: armed police, or “good guys with guns,” at every one of the thousands of schools across the nation. Called the National School Shield Emergency Response Program, the NRA’s plan would put an armed guard in or outside every public school in the United States. After a week-long national conversation about gun control, LaPierre argued that armed security is the only certain way to stop—or at least limit—the carnage from mass school shootings.
“You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy,” LaPierre said of the 2007university shooting that claimed 33 lives. “But what if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he had been confronted by qualified, armed security?”
The news conference sparked a national debate, as well as a fierce back-and-forth in Chicago over what school security should look like on Jan. 3, when more than 404,000 students will return to 681 public schools across the city. Debate consumed national media, provoking a steady, and heated, stream of comments both for and against the idea across multiple platforms.
The NRA proposal invited a strong backlash from gun control advocates, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office released a statement calling it “outrageous and unsettling that the NRA would choose to address gun violence not by taking assault weapons off our streets, but by adding more guns to our schools.” Other Chicago politicians, like Democratic Illinois congressional candidate Robin Kelly, said the NRA proposal fails to address the wider issue of gun violence that pervades Chicago and the country at large.
“Their ‘plan’ is offensive and would do NOTHING (emphasis original) to protect a single child on the streets of Chicago and the Southland,” said Kelly, who was referring to Chicago’s storied and violent South Side, in a statement. Kelly went on to propose an “anti-gun violence initiative,” however, with one of its components being to “ban the types of high capacity ammunition magazines that were used in the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.”
The argument between the NRA and its critics—now including high profile conservatives like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and GOP pollster Frank Lutz—quickly added heat to a nationwide dialogue over how to prevent mass shootings in public spaces.
Meanwhile, as of Dec. 28, 277 Americans—including four in Chicago—had been killed by guns since the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, according to the Twitter handle @GunDeaths and Slate, who have worked in lockstep to keep a running interactive tally of gun-related deaths since Newtown.
Jack Cramer, a senior at Oak Park – River Forest High School west of Chicago, said of the increased presence of armed guards in school: “I think it’s idiotic. Armed guards only came into the picture because of the prevalence of automatic weapons. They’re trying to use guns to solve problems caused by guns, just so they can keep having guns. It’d be like giving more people cancer so there would be less people to get cancer or something.”
To Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, forming legislation around the prevention of massacres like Newtown, rather than focusing on smaller, more prevalent gun crimes, could prove a fruitless effort.
“There’s any number of things we should be doing, like improving gun control and mental health services, to prevent ordinary crime and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Fox said, echoing a wide call after Sandy Hook for greater mental health awareness, education, treatment and study. “But people have to understand that [mass murders] are rare events, and mass killers are very determined, and they’ll find guns any way they can.” Fox has published five books on crime research and statistics, including Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder (Sage, 2006).
Will Police in schools be effective against school shootings?
In a Dec. 21 post in his Boston Globe blog “Crime and Punishment,” Fox pointed to the NRA’s School Shield program as missing the wider point about gun crime in the United States, noting that Columbine High School had a school resource officer (SRO) present on the day of the shootings that killed 13 people there on April 20, 1999.
The presence of SROs—whether they be private guards or city liaison officers—in schools, he noted, are nothing new. As of the 2009-2010 school year, 43 percent of public schools in the United States had security staffs on their campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That number is even higher in Chicago, where high crime rates—and a sharp increase this year in homicide—encourage stricter security measures in high schools. The presence of SROs has steadily increased in this country since 1994, when former President Bill Clinton’s administration crafted the “COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) in school” initiative, which raised more than $60 million in grants to place armed security guards in public schools across the country. Re-funded in April 2000, a year after the Columbine shootings, the program placed more than 2,600 officers in hundreds of communities all over the country. As a result, the total number of government-employed SROs in American schools increased from 9,356 to 13,056, a 37 percent spike between 1997 and 2007, according to the Department of Justice.
But as Fox pointed out, SROs have many more responsibilities than reacting in the rare event of a school shooting.
“They interact with students and get involved in disciplinary action, and they’re stationed in offices inside the school,” Fox said. “The idea that they’re going to be standing guard at the door waiting for an attack is ridiculous—they have many more pressing responsibilities than the 1 in 7 million chance of a mass shooting.”
In 2000, Clinton announced that the purpose of the SROs would be to “heighten school safety as well as coaching sports and acting as mentors and mediators.”
Suburban Chicago mother Audrey Moy’s two children attend New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., where an SRO is employed full time. For Moy, the officer is a measure of safety and convenience. When her son’s iPod was stolen in school in September, for example, the SRO helped him fill out paperwork and file a report without having to go to the local police station. But when it comes to protecting against gun violence, Moy doesn’t think a security officer can offer much protection.
“The officer up there isn’t walking the halls and all that…he has an office there,” Moy said. “And for anything that may happen, we have to remember that it’s a huge high school and even though we have an officer there, something could be happening in a part of the building where he isn’t.”
To Wendy Katten, whose son attends a public school in north side Chicago, adding more SROs is at the bottom of a long list of priorities when it comes to preventing gun violence.
“We’re so under-resourced in terms of counseling, mental health services, psychologists, all the support our kids need…” said Katten, director ofRaise Your Hand Illinois, an education reform advocacy group. “I just can’t imagine that bringing more weapons into the building where kids are supposed to be learning is the right way to go about it.”
Aside from their unclear power against school shooters, many experts suggest that in the long term, SROs may be doing more harm than good. In a November 2011 study, the Washington-based Justice Policy Initiative found that the presence of law enforcement in schools coincides with increases in referrals to the juvenile justice system, in a process it says is “causing lasting harm to youth.”
“Generally what we’ve found is that there’s a high correlation between police in schools and kids getting referred to the justice system for minor offenses that would otherwise just be handled by the schools,” said Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “All it means is that more students are being funneled into the juvenile justice system, who will then be funneled into the adult justice system, and that’s disruptive in terms of long-term safety.”
It’s a phenomenon the NAACP has called the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” saying it sends disproportionate numbers of minorities through the justice system while white students are more likely to get away with school-imposed sanctions.
What’s at stake?
As for what may change locally following of the events in Newtown, no new plans have been announced to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools in Chicago. But two years after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the city’s 28-year-old handgun ban, Emanuel isgearing up to challenge concealed carry laws in the city. Targeting especially loose regulations against gun ownership among the mentally ill, city officials are increasingly looking for measures to curb climbing citywide gun homicide rates.
Gun-related crimes, while especially frequent in and around Chicago, stand out in the United States to make it among the top nations in the worldfor deaths by firearm.
At the moment LaPierre mounted the podium in Washington to present the School Shield program, police in Blair County, Pa. were investigating a shooting spree that had left three people dead and three state troopers injured less than two hours earlier. That same evening in Waterford, Conn., an hour’s drive from Newtown, 34-year-old Kyle Seidel, a father of three, was shot and killed outside a bowling alley for unexplained reasons. About an hour later, a 15-year-old high school freshman died in Wendell, N.C. when his neighbor tried to show him his gun andaccidentally discharged it, fatally wounding him.
All told, 25 Americans all across the country were reported as having died of gunshot wounds on the day of the NRA press conference, according to Slate and @GunDeaths.
For Katten, the issue being addressed by the NRA—prevention of school shootings—isn’t the issue that concerns her most.
“Yes, I think at school we need decent security, absolutely…it shouldn’t be easy to get into a building without safeguards in place,” Katten said. “But [Newtown] didn’t make me worry any more for my son’s safety than I did the day before, when I still knew that there’ve been over 2,000 shootings in Chicago this year.”
The Chicago Bureau’s Gideon Resnick and Jenny Starrs contributed reporting for this story.