Guns and dollars

Men with guns in schools: Resource officers

David Gura Mar 14, 2013
Guns and dollars

Men with guns in schools: Resource officers

David Gura Mar 14, 2013

After the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, called on Congress “to put armed police officers in every school.”

“If we truly cherish our kids more than our money or our celebrities,” he said, “we must give them the greatest level of protection possible and the security that is only available with a properly trained — armed — good guy.”

But many schools already have “good guys with guns.” They’re called School Resource Officers.

Brad Pindel is the school resource officer in Westwood, Mass. That’s quintessential “small-town New England,” about half an hour south of Boston.

“It’s 10 square miles, with a population of 14,000 people,” Pindel says, noting he grew up here, and he has been a cop in Westwood for 12 years.

SROs — that’s what school resource officers call themselves — are not security guards. They’re police officers.

Pindel is responsible for the high school, the middle school, and all five elementary schools in Westwood. I ask him if he sees himself as the first line of defense, the guy who would stop a school shooter.

“It’s difficult to say, because, I mean, being in charge of seven different schools, the chances of me being in that school when something happens are pretty slim,” he says.

There are about 10,000 SROs in the U.S. — that’s one for every ten public schools. It would cost the Westwood Police Department a lot of money to put an officer in every school. On average, Massachusetts police make about $60,000 a year. Westwood used to have two resource officers, but there were budget cuts.

We drive by the Deerfield School, an elementary school, and Pindel mentions he has three young kids.

“Actually, one of them goes to that school we just passed,” he says. “Certainly one of the things that ran through my head after Newtown…”

Since 2000, the Justice Department has spent almost a billion dollars to fund more than 7,000 SRO positions. President Obama wants to make more government money available so police departments can hire another thousand officers.

Several groups, including the National PTA, say no one should have a gun at school — even a trained police officer. Other groups argue there is no evidence armed security at schools makes a difference.

So what does an officer like Brad Pindel actually do? He doesn’t sit there and guard a school. Like many SROs, he doesn’t have an office.

“I try and stay in the high school the most, and make myself visible, because those are the kids that are going to have the most questions or have issues,” Pindel explains.

He deals with bullies. He goes to court with kids in trouble. He teaches D.A.R.E. He meets with parents. Pindel also updates the schools’ crisis plan — what teachers and students are trained to do if there is a gunman.

In his six years as an SRO, Pindel has never encountered a gun in a school.

Pindel went through basic police training that lasts more than a month. Every year, there’s more training, on everything from firearms to first aid. And he has been certified by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

The association trains SROs across the country. Ernie Whiteman, an SRO from Medford, Ore., is teaching a weeklong course in Leominster, Mass., to about two dozen officers.

He says demand has increased since the Connecticut shooting.

“Last I heard we were scheduled for like 53 of them between now and the first part of August,” Whiteman says.

One officer at the training is Steven Creamer. I ask him what he thinks of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s proposal, to put “a good guy with a gun” in every school.

“You know, it’s good to have an armed person in a school,” Creamer says. “But they should be properly trained.”

Over the last three decades, there have been about 150 shootings in U.S. schools. But the argument for armed security defies cost-benefit analysis. This week, the board of finance in Newtown, Conn., added $400,000 to the town’s budget, to put an armed police officer in every school.

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