Given today’s active shooters may very well come heavily armed, and perhaps better equipped, than the typical school-based police officer who may encounter them in a school hallway, some local law enforcement agencies are looking at leveling the playing field.
Aim for transparency
When police departments propose storing in schools some higher-powered weapons than the standard firearm carried by their School Resource Officers (SRO), chances are good that the subject will become a school board and community level issue. It will also likely end up in the local, and perhaps even national, news media.
If police chiefs/sheriffs take the issue to their superintendents, they should expect the superintendent will discuss it with their board. In my opinion, superintendents should do so given the administrative, safety, and school-community relations aspects of the issue. Having the school board learn of this proposal from parents or the media would be unfair to the board, to say the least.
In today’s political and social media world, school boards, superintendents, and chiefs/sheriffs should also plan with the assumption that the proposal will be known to the public and media in a short period of time, if not instantly. Each school-community culture is different, so parent and community reaction may vary.
Plan ahead: Prepare for weapons security and public education
Some general guidance on this topic that I suggest to law enforcement agency heads, superintendents, and school boards include:
- You need to prepare a strong education component for school administrators at the building level, school staff at the building level, the superintendent and board, parents/community, and the media before you go forward. Develop questions likely to be asked and have answers ready, and answer those questions in your presentations on the topic.
- While law enforcement and school safety professionals understand the rationale behind the idea and often have no opposition, I have some caveats that go along with supporting such proposals including, but not limited to:
- Store the higher-powered weapons only during school hours when SROs are present. The weapons come and go with the officer.
- Physical security of the weapons storage units (safes) must be strong and this should be clearly communicated during the education process.
- Physical security of the SRO office should also be examined prior to implementing such a strategy. An off-master key or electronic access control that nobody else (custodial, teachers, etc.) should have, no false ceilings, glass/door hardware strengthening considerations, perhaps a dedicated alarm for that room, etc. are all fair game.
- Formal documented policies and procedures should be created by the law enforcement agency and in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the school district. It does not have to be “paralysis-by-analysis,” but there should be written guidelines.
- Both the law enforcement agency and school district should review the proposed plan with their respective legal counsel, insurance carriers, etc.
- School and law enforcement leaders should anticipate student, staff, parent, community, and media questions. Be prepared. Research other departments that are doing it in your area, pull together stats on how many SROs/districts are doing it regionally/state/nationally, etc. Have cases available to point to where it has been needed, used, etc., in actual incidents.
It is reasonable for our police officers in schools to want to have access to the same weaponry their officer counterparts patrolling the streets have available to them. This may mean not only their 9mm handgun, but also a Taser and higher-powered firearms issued to departmental officers. We certainly do not want those who protect us outgunned by the criminals.
The devil is in the details: Implementation and communications
At the same time, schools are unique settings and this must be factored into the implementation and communications processes. As with many other aspects of school-policing, as well as education and law enforcement in general, well-thought-out implementation plans, sound policies and procedures, and strong education and communication plans are critical to successfully implementing this public safety strategy.
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