Lock and Load

Do Cops With Guns Mean Safer Schools?

The NRA has a plan to make American students secure from shooters. Armed guards. But has anyone asked the kids what they think?

04.02.13 8:45 AM ET

The National Rifle Association on Tuesday will announce its National School Shield Program. The plan is a follow-up to the gun lobby’s controversial claim, made by executive Wayne LaPierre in the wake of the Newtown massacre, that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The NRA’s proposal will urge federal legislation requiring an armed guard in every public school in the country, as well as training proposals for the guards and ways for local lawmakers to ensure their local school districts have access to police in schools. A representative for the NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

Students and teachers say placing cops in schools to keep kids safe often has the opposite effect, intimidating students. It can also make police the default disciplinarians in schools with poor leadership.

Leslie Mendoza, now 17, says she felt like she was entering a prison every time she entered her magnet public high school in Los Angeles. Police would even search students’ backpacks and pockets when they came to school late. “That was one of the things that made me not want to go to school anymore,” she says. She dropped out of high school when she was 15, though she eventually earned her degree at another school. “At our school we don’t allow any police in without a warrant,” she says.

Aeisha Vegas, a New York City high school student, says kids feel pressured when police are investigating random crimes in other locations—some far, far away. “Schools in the Bronx are affected when there is shooting somewhere else,” she says.

Civil-rights activists confirm that butterfly effect after school shootings: Headlines are made when shootings happen in suburban or rural schools. Then, students in the country’s poorest urban schools bear the brunt of the resulting increased security.

Schools patrolled by police can also lead to abuses, experts say.

Research by the NAACP’s Youth and College Division has found that in Florida, black students make up 21 percent of the youth population but accounted for 46 percent of disciplinary referrals to law enforcement in 2011. In January, a 7-year-old boy in New York was handcuffed and detained for stealing $5. An 8-year-old girl in Missouri was held in a police car for two hours after throwing a temper tantrum in March. And the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit (PDF) in October against a local Mississippi school district for “systemically arresting and incarcerating children, including for minor school infractions, without even the most basic procedural safeguards, and in violation of these children’s constitutional rights.”

This week, civil-rights organizations including the ACLU and NAACP, along with youth groups across the country, are kicking off a week of action to protest the NRA’s school safety plan. Rallies, concerts, and teach-ins are planned from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, to raise awareness about the Safe, Gun-Free Schools campaign (PDF), which protests any weapons in schools—including those of law enforcement.

Both activists and experts say there’s little evidence that more guns in schools prevent mass shootings in the first place. A Secret Service and Justice Department report (PDF) commissioned in the aftermath of the Columbine mass shooting found that “despite prompt law-enforcement responses, most attacks were stopped by means other than law-enforcement intervention,” including school administrators or the deaths of the attackers themselves.

Columbine’s high school had an armed guard on site on the day of the shooting that killed 15 people. But he was unable to stop the shootings before Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris committed suicide.

Still, in the wake of Newtown, just as after Columbine, proposals to increase funding for armed guards in schools are working their way through local and federal legislatures. The Mississippi legislature recently approved a $7.5 million grant that could fund an armed guard in every school in the state. And Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced a bill shortly after Newtown that would strengthen the Justice Department’s Secure Our Schools program, which provides grants to public schools to fund more security.

From left, Linda Finkel-Talvadkar, Helen Ramsey and Barbara Elsas check each others' signs while demonstrating in favor of stricter gun laws on the north side of the White House March 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. A pre-school teacher from the District of Columbia, Elsas and her friends have demonstrated outside of the White House every Monday since a movie theater shooting killed 12 and injured 58 others last July in Aurora, Colorado. "If one student hits another with a rock then I'm not going to give all the children rocks," Elsas said while criticizing National Rifle Association's proposal that more armed guards be posted in schools.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

From left, Linda Finkel-Talvadkar, Helen Ramsey, and Barbara Elsas check each others' signs while demonstrating in favor of stricter gun laws on the north side of the White House on March 11, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Americans seems to support the measures. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after Newtown found that 53 percent believe that more police presence in school is a very effective way of preventing school shootings, while 34 percent believe it is somewhat effective and only 12 percent believe it is not effective.

But students who say they’ve been victimized by the presence of police in their schools say a gun-free alternative to school security is possible.

Julio Marquez, 20, says he dropped out of a Los Angeles high school at age 17 because of the fear and anxiety provoked by police patrolling the hallways. “I can’t read a metal detector and I can’t read a gun,” he says.