After every major disaster, especially of the manmade variety, there is a public outcry that demands: Do something! The cry is rooted in a well-founded frustration with our inability to attain perfection in an imperfect world.
If we can harness the atom/invent the microwave oven/put a man on the moon, why can’t we make a cruise ship that won’t fail/invent batteries that won’t cause fires on airplanes/prevent massacres by deranged gunmen? It is the latter, of course, that causes the strongest demand for solutions, doubly so when the victims are children on a school campus.
Simply the mention of their names becomes synonymous with tragedy.
And of course, Sandy Hook.
Solutions range from the over-simplified (ban guns from people who might some day embark on such a rampage) to the visceral (have teachers wear sidearms in the classroom).
There are calls for putting a police officer on every campus in the nation, much like the bank guard of yesteryear. This concept assumes that the officer will be in the right place on campus the moment that a gunman arrives, will recognize him as a deranged assassin, and will get off the first shot. That is assuming a lot.
As to police presence, we submit that an occasional conspicuous campus walk-through by a patrol officer, perhaps even an occasional lunch in the school cafeteria, would be more beneficial in the long run.
Polk County School Superintendent John Stewart addressed the school security issue in an appearance before the Tiger Bay Club of Polk County earlier this month.
The answer, he said, does not lie in arming classroom teachers.
He suggested three more effective defensive measures:
• Automatic door locks.
• Staff vigilance.
All three make good sense, especially when used in combination.
There was a time when we opposed fencing of school campuses, because a fence imparts a blunt message: “Keep out!” There used to be a national initiative called “Don’t fence me out,” urging that school playgrounds be made available to neighborhood children after school hours.
But the realities of campus security may have made those paradigms obsolete.
Fenced campuses with a single point of entry at least force all persons arriving at a school to walk past the school office or other observation point.
Automatic school locks are a more recent development. The system allows doors to all classrooms (and presumably other places where students congregate, such as libraries and lunchrooms) to be locked with the tripping of a single switch.
Combined with an alert broadcast over the school public address system, such technology can reduce reaction time to a crisis to a few seconds, much more quickly than teachers could lock their individual classrooms.
Like fencing, automatic locks aren’t cheap, but once in place, both become a lasting fix.
And as Stewart acknowledged, there is no substitute for vigilance by teachers, administrators, and support staff.
Without someone watching who walks through the gate, or with the presence of mind to throw the lock-down switch, fencing and locks won’t do the job.
It is a shame that the infrequent but tragic attacks on school campuses require that campus security be made a major concern of the school system. But that is life as it is, not as we would like for it to be.
As the public responds with the predictable demand to “Do something!” sensible ideas like fencing, automatic door locks, and staff vigilance make far more sense than turning campuses into armed camps.