The Hillsborough County School Board again will consider superintendent MaryEllen Elia's plan this week to put an armed security guard in each of the district's 142 elementary schools. Board members batted it down earlier this year, but Elia never stopped pushing. The board members, though likely worn down by intense public pressure, should hold firm and reject the proposal. It remains an expensive overreach, and one armed guard is not going to provide absolute protection from the rare unconscionable act of violence.
Elia first introduced her security plan to board members less than a month after gunman Adam Lanza went on a murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 students and six adults. The tragedy sent school officials across the nation scrambling to shore up security. For the short term in Hillsborough County, law enforcement sat sentry at each of the district's elementary schools in the mornings and at dismissal times, an understandable temporary response that eased anxiety for parents and educators.
Elia's long-term solution calls for placing guards at the schools at an annual cost of $4.5 million a year after a four-year phase in. The guards' tasks would include patrolling school grounds, interacting with students during lunch and providing security for after-school events such as PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences. Guards are already present at 19 elementary schools, chosen largely because of their location or prior incidents that merited an increased security presence. That sort of informed decisionmaking is smarter than a blanket approach.
The School Board rejected Elia's proposal in January. Since then, it has held several workshops to examine school security. It hired a security consultant and put $1 million toward hardening school campuses, making them more difficult for intruders to access and harder for wandering children to escape. Those were necessary, commendable actions.
Keeping children safe is of utmost importance. But putting an armed guard in every elementary school doesn't translate to safety. To be sure, there's a place for the guards in middle and high schools, where they deal with older students and everything from drug dealing to bullying. But in elementary school, such a show of force is extreme. And while it is impossible to put a price tag on saving lives, $4 million a year is a lot to spend for what amounts to little more than an act to soothe angst. That money would have greater impact used for math or reading incentive programs, efforts to close the achievement gap or expanded counseling programs to identify at-risk kids.
Each board member should balance his or her responsibility to keep children safe with the duty to make financially prudent, informed decisions that are not hyped by emotion. No board member wants to come face to face with tragedy and wonder if more could have been done to prevent it. Equally important is knowing that reasoned decisionmaking trumped passionate politicking — and that no security force can guarantee absolute safety. The School Board did the right thing the first time. It needs to do it again.