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Editorial: Money for school security a good move, but how to spend it?
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A school resource officer at West Hall High School takes a position at the front of the school moments before students leave for the day in 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Hall County and city of Gainesville school systems announced this week that they plan to invest $1 million each into improved security at schools for the coming year.

That’s good news to hear.

In light of the reality that public schools have become lethal battlegrounds at locations across the United States, additional proactive efforts to keep children safe when entrusted to the care of educators are welcome.

It’s impossible to predict, however, what security measures are guaranteed to work in a potential situation that may feel all too familiar but still be unique in its origins.

Gainesville school officials plan to augment existing school resource officer strategies by placing armed guards at each of the city’s schools. Doing so cannot assure that a school shooting will not take place but may will provide an added level of security and reassurance for students, parents and staff alike.

A public health study funded by the National Institute of Justice looked at 133 cases of public and private school shootings and attempted shootings from 1980 to 2019, and determined that “armed guards were not associated with significant reduction in rates of injuries; in fact … the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

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The study found “an armed officer on the scene was the number one factor associated with increased casualties, after the perpetrators’ use of assault rifles or submachine guns.”

But the study only evaluates data from incidents that actually took place. It doesn’t reflect how often having an armed guard may have served as a deterrent to stop an incident before it ever happened.

It is relevant to remember that many school shooters are suicidal in nature, so that the possibility of encountering armed resistance may not be the deterrent one might expect.

The scary reality is those conducting the study found 133 incidents to examine over a period of less than 40 years.

In 85% of the cases reviewed, the shooter was either a current student (70%) or a former student (15%) of the school under attack.

The Hall County system has not yet defined for the public how it intends to expend the money set aside for better security, but indications are at least some of it is to be expended in an effort to address root causes of potential student violence.

“We know too much about previous school tragedies to believe that armed personnel, metal detectors and razor wire are a sufficient and appropriate response,” said Superintendent Will Schofield.

Hall officials have expressed reservations about providing too much detail on how increased money will be spent lest doing so serve to weaken rather than improve the security effort. We would expect more details to be forthcoming at some point. We understand not making all security system information public, but given the colossal failures at Uvalde it is important that enough is shared to give the public some degree of confidence.

Public school buildings are designed for the ebb and flow of hundreds of students and adults daily in an open campus environment. Efforts can, and have, been made to address points of ingress and egress, flow of crowds, access to school property, etc. But there are limits to what can be done while maintaining a functional school setting in which students and faculty feel safe and comfortable.

In a perfect world, we would be able to say “do this and do that,” and everything would be OK. But ours is not a perfect world, and there are those who are sick or simply evil that will take advantage of any opportunity to create lethal chaos.

Regardless of your position on gun control, it is hard to argue against the idea of keeping young people who are motivated to kill others away from access to weapons. Legally limiting the access of youngsters under the age of 21 to certain weapons, just as we limit their driving privileges to certain vehicles, makes sense.

But even if laws were changed, it is naïve to pretend the potential for deadly assault would disappear, forcing professional educators and those in law enforcement to plan for the possibility of a shooting event at any school, any time.

That’s a sad reality.

The study for the National Institute for Justice concludes with “The majority of shooters who target schools are students of the school, calling into question the effectiveness of hardened security and active shooter drills. Instead, schools must invest in resources to prevent shootings before they occur.”

Stopping shootings before they occur is obviously the goal for both our local school systems. We applaud their efforts in that direction, and only wish that the path to doing so successfully was as clear cut and obvious as community critics and experts commenting in the world of social media would suggest.