How Safe Are Our Schools | By Carol Enright
When the city of Chesterfield incorporated in 1988, Columbine was just the name of an unincorporated town in Colorado. Today, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and, most recently, Santa Fe High School in Texas, are synonymous with the horrific school shootings that are so much a part of the regular news cycle that it’s almost numbing.
By now, we know that these senseless killings can happen anywhere. So, how safe are our kids when we shuttle them off to school each day?
Sgt. Chris Connelly heads the school resource officer program for the Chesterfield Police Department.
“All in all, I think that our schools are very secure,” Connelly says. “We do have, especially in Chesterfield, a very strong presence with our police. And it’s not just the police. The school districts are equally committed to security with their security staff that supplement our officers.”
Ten percent of the Chesterfield Police Department is dedicated to keeping our schools safe. The department has 99 commissioned officers, and 10 of them work full-time, nine months of the year, as school resource officers (SROs).
Six SROs are assigned permanently to each of the six middle and high schools within the department’s jurisdiction. The two Chesterfield school districts, Rockwood and Parkway, pay 75% of the salaries of those six SROs, because they work 75% of the year full-time at the schools. An additional four SROs are responsible for the 13 public elementary and private schools within the department’s jurisdiction.
The Chesterfield PD started getting into the business of school safety in the mid-1990s, long before Columbine.
When the department first approached the school districts about putting officers in schools, the schools were hesitant.
Connelly recalls them saying, “Do we really want to put police officers in schools? Will they be a distraction? Now, I can’t even give one of my guys a day off without getting a replacement.”
“The culture has dramatically changed over the years,” he adds.
An Evolution — in Mindset and Training
Chesterfield Police Chief Ray Johnson says there has been “an evolution” in how comfortable schools are with having police officers in their midst.
“Years ago, when we first started the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, the DARE corporation really didn’t think the officers in the classroom should have their firearm on them. They thought that would be a distraction to the children,” Johnson says. “Soon as there was a shooting, there was no way police were going to put officers in the schools with no weapons. We’ve evolved from that.”
The way police officers are trained to respond to active shooters in schools has evolved, too.
“We were teaching officers if you’re the first officer on the scene, you wait outside until a couple more officers arrive and you form a diamond formation and you go in,” Johnson explains. “That didn’t last too long — because if you’re the officer outside hearing gunshots and kids screaming, you’re supposed to stand there for three minutes waiting for backup?
“Now, the approach is you go in, you confront the bad guy, and you take him out,” Johnson says.
After the most recent school shootings, the department brought in its 10 SROs to reiterate two guiding principles.
“Number one, it’s our responsibility if there’s an active shooter to go in,” Connelly says. “We’re going to stop that person.
“Second, our approach to our job in the schools has got to be very efficient, but friendly and cordial all at the same time,” he adds. “You just have to know when the time is right to step it up to that next level.”
A Special Kind of Officer
This combination of an officer who is prepared to confront an active shooter and who has the right temperament to work with students requires a special kind of officer.
“We go through and try to determine who those officers are who would be able to act in that manner if it (a school shooting) came up — if they’re tactically oriented — and the kind of officers that can do well with the kids in school, too,” Connelly says.
Johnson says SROs have to guard against feeling too comfortable in a school setting.
“You have to constantly remind yourself that when that time comes that you have the mindset of going in and reverting to a police officer and confronting an armed suspect and shooting it out with him,” he says. “That’s an important part of an SRO’s make up. You’ve got to play two roles.”
The department’s SROs undergo school resource officer training. Most are also crisis intervention team officers, which requires additional training on interacting with people in crisis.
Connelly says that while SROs are not trained counselors, they are trained “to approach kids who are in crisis and introduce them to the mental health system.”
If they see a student in crisis, they will alert the school’s guidance counselors.
“The school resource officer actually gets integrated into the faculty and the staff of the school,” Connelly says. “They wear a lot of different hats: some counselor, some friend, some law enforcement officer. It’s just amazing what these kids — and faculty and staff — will come and discuss with the school resource officers. That heads off various things before they get started.”
The Social Media Factor
The department keeps close tabs on social media.
“Social media makes it so easy for kids to just say things — even though they’re never going to carry it out and don’t have the wherewithal to carry it out,” Johnson says.
Even though most individuals posting threats will never carry them out, the department takes every single threat to school safety seriously.
“The good news is that the investigative technology that we have available allows us to get this under control in short order,” says Connelly. “Recently we’ve seen an uptick in that activity, where kids are online making threats and they’re trying to do it anonymously — but we can, very quickly, find out who that is.”
And they do.
“The system has worked very well,” Connelly says, “because the principals find out about that very quickly. They call their school resource officers at any time, day or night. Then we initiate an investigation — and, before you know it, we’re at the kid’s house.”
In May, an area student posted a threatening comment about a school shooting on social media.
“She didn’t have access to a gun, but we were there at 2 or 3 in the morning investigating that,” says Connelly, adding that the student had no intention of following through on the threat.
Deterrence through Police Presence and Communication
Although schools have increased security through the years, Johnson says that only goes so far in preventing a shooter who has access to the school — namely, a student.
“What’s really hard is when we try to harden the school — make it harder for people to get in and out — and it’s not an outsider; it’s a student,” says Johnson. “We can keep out the 50-year-old man in the trench coat who’s lurking around outside, but what about the 16-year-old kid who goes to school there?”
What about arming teachers in schools?
“I think it’s a bad idea,” says Johnson. “Not everyone wants to carry a gun. Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically capable of using that gun if confronted in some situation.”
Connelly agrees: “Teachers are nurturers by nature, and they want nothing but what’s best for their students. Can you imagine you are a teacher who knows this young man, and you confront him in the hallway? Will you be able to shoot him before he shoots you?”
Both Johnson and Connelly say the best defense against school shootings is deterrence — through a visible police presence and SROs who maintain an open line of communication with students.
“The officers can pay attention to the quirky kid and ones that act and dress strange, but the other kids are really the best source of information,” Johnson says, “and it’s becoming more common now that they will come forward.”
Johnson says he understands why parents are anxious about school safety.
“I always tell parents you hear about these things, and they’re tragic,” he says, “but school is still the safest place for a kid to be.”