Should school police have high-powered rifles in schools?

Posted by on September 7, 2012

The Plainfield (IL) Police Department’s recent request to allow its School Resource Officers (SROs) to store AR-15 rifles in gun safes at their high school generated quite a buzz. (See the Chicago Tribune story entitled Assault rifles in schools a sign of the times.)

But was the request really unreasonable?

Actually, the request by the police is not unusual. It is also not inconsistent with reasonable tactical planning. It does, however, have an understandable “shock and awe” initial impact to many educators, parents, and lay persons.

We know with the number of “lone wolf” active shooters in the news more often, as well as in prior school shootings, that these incidents often unfold from beginning to end in a matter of minutes. It would be a significant loss of time for an officer, who is outgunned by an intruder armed to the hilt, to return to his/her car to get authorized weapons he/she already has been issued by the police department to address such a threat.

We could do all types of “what if?” questions. What if the office is not near his/her office? What if the officer happens to be outside of the building? All understandable questions but this request is, in essence, simply an extra level of preparedness.

When we encounter this type of request, my concerns tend to lean toward how the weapons would be secured rather than whether or not the request itself is unreasonable. Many SRO offices have false ceiling tiles where someone could climb in over the top. Their offices are rooms for which numerous others may have keys (principals, cleaners, etc.), and they typically do not have dedicated intrusion alarms.

While police appropriately propose storing the weapons in a weapons safe (a solid practice), I tend to recommend additional security measures addressing these other physical security gaps of the office itself. Can ceiling access be eliminated? Can the room be specially keyed? Will a dedicated intrusion detection system (alarm) be put on the room?

In terms of the extent of this practice, nobody knows for sure in hard numbers. Is it something we encounter all the time? No. Is it something we have seen here and there over years past? Yes.

Are the majority of SROs doing it? Nobody knows for sure. There are many variables that come into play including the type of police department equipment issued (some may not even have this type of equipment), police department policy, school district political and image considerations, etc.

My bet is that the last dynamic — school district political and image considerations – would play the greatest role in local debates on this issue. While the need and rationale should be clearly and effectively communicated to members of the school community, school leaders need to remember that school safety and preparedness, not image, should guide their decision-making.

Today’s world is not the same world of a decade ago. Schools reflect that world. School and public safety leaders need to work thoughtfully on sensitive issues like these with safety, not school politics, leading the way.

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One thought on “Should school police have high-powered rifles in schools?

  1. Chuck Hibbert says:

    Great points for school districts to consider and understand. Too often, these requests by SRO’s are misunderstood by school boards and adminstration. It is up to the police agency making the request to “sell” the schools on the need and the reasoning behind the request. And then the police agency and school must partner to explain the need to the community. And thanks for addressing this real issue.

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