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A Times Editorial

Schools shouldn't be armed fortresses

The Hillsborough School Board should slow down superintendent MaryEllen Elia's rush to expand an armed security force so it can guard every elementary school. The focus on school safety is appropriate in the wake of last month's shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, and it is understandable that school officials want to reassure parents that children are safe. But while there are merits to parts of Elia's proposal, there is no need to immediately commit $4 million a year for a private security force whose effectiveness at preventing something as horrible as the Connecticut massacre would be questionable at best.

Hillsborough already has added patrols of elementary schools by sheriff's deputies and Tampa police officers for the spring semester. They are trained professionals with arrest powers, and that should be enough to respond to the immediate emotional concerns. Already there are armed school district security guards in 19 of Hillsborough's 142 elementary schools that are in higher-crime neighborhoods. Those guards regularly patrol other schools as well. That is a more prudent, targeted approach to safety than significantly expanding the security force to include armed security guards at every elementary school.

Elia has sprung an expensive, sweeping new plan on School Board members and the community — and she wants immediate action. She wants the School Board to approve her plan to hire and train 130 security employees for elementary schools on Tuesday. Regardless of her good intentions, her approach feels like a political maneuver aimed at capitalizing on the fresh emotions of parents and outmaneuvering School Board members who are not her biggest supporters.

Contrast Elia's haste with the more methodical effort by new Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego and most of Elia's peers in Florida. Grego has recorded a phone message to update parents, directed staff to review school safety plans and asked for suggestions from principals. That is a reasonable approach that is likely to lead to a pragmatic response grounded in reality rather than emotion.

Other parts of Elia's proposal are appropriate. Ninety percent of the district's schools already have controlled access, and spending $1.2 million to properly secure the remaining schools is a smart investment. So is spending a little money on an outside security consultant and on continuing crisis management training for administrators, teachers and students. But the cost of the expansion of the security force dwarfs the other costs.

All school districts should take pragmatic steps to ensure teachers, students and parents feel safe. The reality is that no amount of security can prevent every possible tragedy. Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., had a secure entrance. Yet police say Adam Lanza forced his way in and killed 20 students and six educators. There was an armed deputy at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 who fired at one of the shooters, but he could not prevent the killing of 15 people. Despite the National Rifle Association's rants, the answer to gun violence is not more guns and turning public schools into armed fortresses.

The Hillsborough School Board should agree to spend the money to control access at the remaining schools that need it and continue crisis management training. But board members should not rubber stamp Elia's plans for armed security officers at every elementary school.

Schools shouldn't be armed fortresses 01/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 6:31pm]
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