1. Opinion

Police at schools is not final answer

Published Jan. 5, 2013

It is understandable in the aftermath of last month's school massacre in Connecticut that local educators and police officials are rethinking campus security and looking to calm anxious parents. The decision in Hillsborough County to put armed officers at every elementary school when classes resume Monday is well-intended. But it is a temporary goodwill gesture and an emotional reaction rather than a real strategy for addressing the real problem: the glut of high-powered guns and ammunition on the streets and the glaring holes in state and federal laws that are supposed to balance public safety with gun rights.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department announced last week they would post one uniformed employee at each of the county's 150 elementary schools beginning Monday, when classes resume after the winter break. Officers will be present at the opening and closing bells, though coverage throughout the day is uncertain. At schools inside the city limits, police will stop by as time permits as part of their routine patrols. In the unincorporated areas, deputies will be staffed using overtime pay, though the level of coverage has not been determined.

This is a well-meaning effort to address public concerns only weeks after a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six faculty members. Officials stressed the move would last only through the school year and is intended in part to create the breathing space for a public dialogue on any new, permanent security measures.

Hillsborough's response is far more responsible than the call by the National Rifle Association for armed security forces at every school. But it promotes the same false sense of security. Even assuming an officer is on the scene, how is he or she supposed to stop every person in and out of the campus? There is no way in a free society to remove every possible security risk. And there is no parallel with the county's existing program where police serve as resource officers in the middle and high schools. Those officers on campus are focused on maintaining order within the school — stopping fights, petty thefts and acting as a deterrent. Their primary purpose is not to respond to gunmen with assault rifles coming in from the outside.

Focusing on the police as a last line of defense also distracts the public from addressing the real problem. The nation knows what will have a real impact: Reinstating a ban on assault-style weapons, limiting the size of ammunition clips, and requiring that all gun sales be subject to background checks by closing the gun show loophole.

The appropriate response to intruders attacking schools with assault rifles is not more guns in schools and armed security forces. Hillsborough is acting in good faith, and it is not an unreasonable temporary step. But it is no long-term answer, and officials should channel the public's concern and resources toward efforts that have a more meaningful chance of reducing gun violence.