CINCINNATI – The steady, sickening drumbeat of school shootings across the United States, punctuated by the mass slaughter of kindergarteners at Sandy Hook Elementary a year ago, has prompted many parents, educators and politicians to find new ways to keep children safe.
In Ohio, members of the conservative super-majority that now holds power in the statehouse say the answer is more guns in schools and on school grounds, prompting a new round of debate about who, if anyone, should be armed in schools.
Prior to 2008, concealed handgun licensees were barred from school property with the exception of those designated by the school district. For school districts or local governments that can afford them, school resource officers often fill that role.
Ohio lawmakers passed a new exception to the no-guns policy in 2008 when they voted to allow parents who have conceal-carry permits to bring their guns to school to pick up and drop off their children. The guns have to stay inside the parents’ vehicles, but the choice of whether to allow the guns on school property does not lay with local schools. Schools must allow guns in the pickup/drop-off queue, by order of the state.
Parents’ freedom to use their guns would be further expanded by Rep. Terry Johnson’s proposed bill that would add “stand your ground” protections for licensed carriers who would, under House Bill 203, have the right to use deadly force in their homes or vehicles if they feel that their lives are in imminent danger. The measure is similar to the controversial laws on the books in other states, including the one that exonerated George Zimmerman after he shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Travyon Martin.
The Ohio house passed a bill on Jan. 22 that would generally bar disclosure of the names of school employees who a school district designates to carry firearms and would exclude from union negotiations the rules governing who is designated. It would also give employees and their school districts broad immunity from civil liability if designated employees kill or injure people with handguns within a school safety zone with exceptions such as reckless conduct. That bill will be considered by the senate.
Another bill passed the house in December and awaits the senate’s consideration would enable armed, retired and active peace officers to voluntarily patrol schools. They would be eligible for up to a $500 state tax credit under the proposal, which was sponsored by Rep. Anthony DeVitis.
Gun control advocates are advancing various bills that would attempt to limit the role of guns at schools.
There is little universal opinion between lawmakers, educators and parents when it comes to the issue of guns in schools.
DeVitis said he supported House Bill 215, allowing for volunteer armed patrols, after a friend in law enforcement approached him asking how the law could be changed to allow him to volunteer at a neighborhood school. After seeking input from parents and school and law enforcement officials, he crafted Law Officer Volunteering in Education (LOVE), which gives school districts the option of accepting volunteer peace officers to conduct armed patrols.
The bill applies only to active and retired law enforcement and retired military personnel and requires background checks for retirees. It does not include mandatory physical or mental fitness exams, although districts could choose to add such provisions.
“There are always rogue scenarios that can arise, but I think for the most part able individuals will apply,” he said.
DeVitis said he likes the flexibility that the bill provides.
“They can even use the bill as a model to craft a policy that is best for them,” DeVitis said. “You never know how a program is going to take off, but we’re hoping that the districts that are most needy that don’t have the means for a school resource officer can take advantage of this.”
He added: “This isn’t a cure all. This is one of the parts of that long process to ensure that the kids have what they need to be safe.”
Amy Pulles, executive director of Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, supports the use of armed school resource officers but opposes the idea of others carrying guns inside schools.
“When there are more guns present, then there is more likelihood of an accident or the wrong person getting hold of a gun,” she said. “There’s a risk that students may be aware of the janitor or teacher who carries a weapon, and students may be able to get it away from them.”
Dr. Richard J. Caster, senior school board services consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association, cautioned legislators against one-size-fits-all policies.
“I wish we could put a trained police officer in every school in Ohio. It’s not going to happen. Reality says no one can
afford it,” he said.
School shootings have largely not been an urban problem, where school resource officers are more routinely employed.
“If you take a look at the shootings over the last 20 years ... this is suburban and rural America,” Caster said.
Most agree that school resource officers (SROs) are the ideal security solution, but they are expensive -- especially at a time when most school districts are being squeezed financially.
“There’s never been a big pot of money for SROs,” said Kari Parsons, executive director of the Ohio School Resource Officer Association. “It is really hard because, of course, the need is there. Every time we have a new catastrophe schools and the law enforcement agencies come together to look for solutions.
Despite scarce resources, the ranks of resource officers are growing. Parsons’ group, which only represents a portion of Ohio’s SROs, has grown from 320 officers in 2006 to more than 600 today, she said.
Parsons is wary of arming teachers or staff, particularly if SROs and other police officers, in the heat of an emergency, don’t know which teachers are carrying guns and who might be an assailant.
“If they find a teacher who has gun shooting, they may not know who the perpetrator is,” she said.
Like legislators, parent views that run the gamut, too.
Kelly Cornelius, a parent of a Norwood Schools graduate and twin Norwood second-graders, has the additional perspective of being pupil personnel secretary in the school system. Norwood has one SRO who oversees six schools.
Cornelius wishes they had the money for more resource officers, but the status quo is better than adding others wielding guns, she said.
“We would need somebody who is able to keep a cool head in a crisis,” she said. “Practically anybody can get a conceal carry permit. That doesn’t mean they’re capable to help in an emergency.”
Robert Amodio, Norwood superintendent, agreed: “I believe both professionally and personally that the only personnel to carry a firearm on school property should be a law enforcement officer such as a school resource officer.”
Mark Gabbard, principal of Williams Avenue Elementary in Norwood and father of third- and fifth-grade boys there, is happy with his district’s safety program, which includes surprise lockdown drills quarterly, beat police officers who are familiar with the schools, and emergency training for teachers and staff.
Evelyn Suesberry, president of the Winton Woods Community PTA, supports the ability of parents to carry concealed weapons and for school personnel to go to school armed, if they are properly trained.
While she, too, would prefer to have more resource officers, she said a teacher or staff member has the right to protect themselves by getting a license and carrying a weapon.
“They still would have to be trained, maybe not even necessarily killing (assailants) if they don’t have to.”
Within Cincinnati Public Schools, the consensus of leadership leaned heavily toward school resource officers and away from introducing other armed security.
Twelve SROs patrol Cincinnati Public Schools, an increase of two after Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell decided to budget for additional help.
While not specifically trained to interact with school children, CPS school resource officers are chosen for their ability to interact with students, said Daniel Daum, a CPS security officer and investigator and a former police officer.
“That’s a criterion, to be compassionate. They’re officers who are wanting to work with youths. They develop a rapport with the kids,” he said, which leads to a level of trust that makes students feel comfortable coming to the officers with problems, often averting bigger incidents.
In addition to school resource officers, CPS employs about 100 unarmed security officers, many of whom are retired police officers, all of whom have undergone police training, said Mary Ronan, superintendent.
William Moehring, CPS director of school services, said CPS has worked extensively with FEMA, Homeland Security and county emergency officials to train staff to deal with emergencies, sending administrators and security personnel to FEMA training exercises in Maryland, New Mexico and Alabama beginning in 2003.
“The beat cops around every school know the layout of each school and know the emergency procedures in place,” he said.
Their efforts are boosted by the proliferation of security cameras within CPS schools, which now use more than 3,000 district-wide, Daum said. The smallest elementary schools have at least 32 cameras, and Walnut Hills High School leads the pack with 264 cameras, Moehring said.
He opposes arming teachers or staff.
“The good thing we have in Cincinnati is a lot of police can respond within two or three minutes,” he said.
Moehring, who has been both a police officer and a firefighter, drew on his firefighting experience to explain his opposition to armed teachers.
“We don’t want teachers putting the fire out. We want them getting the kids out to safety. It’s the same
thing with other emergencies,” he said.
Note: This story has been revised to correct the date that lawmakers allowed parents with conceal-carry permits to bring their guns to pick up and drop off their children and to reflect that a bill amending the rules for designating school employees who can carry firearms was still active and, in fact, passed the house on Jan. 23.