School resource officers are no substitute for common-sense gun laws

York Dispatch editorial board
A walkabout through Dover Elementary with School Resource Officers Andrew Shaffer and Destiny Marshall in Dover on Friday, May 27, 2022.

Our schools are grappling with a difficult question: How do they protect against violence like the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead?

For many districts, including Dover Area schools, the answer has been to hire school resource officers.

These armed police officers walk the halls of the schools. In the event of an incident, officers like Andrew Shaffer provide a first line of defense. But they also build relationships within the community — with students, staff and parents — so they can hopefully ward off problems before they happen. Shaffer routinely fields tips about suspicious activity that he tracks down.

“I’d much rather somebody say something and it turns out to be the old lady walking her dog versus the alternatives,” he said.

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More:Police inaction moves to center of Uvalde shooting probe

Of course, having uniformed officers stationed in schools comes with a few downsides.

The most obvious one is the cost.

In the past month, a number of local school districts — including Central York and Dover Area — deliberated how exactly to pay for the enhanced security. According to a study by Cleveland State University, the median cost for a school resource officer is $72,530 per year — and the data from that study was collected in 2013.

For comparison's sake, the average cost to hire a school nurse is $69,000 or a psychologist is $80,000. Never mind the persistent budget limitations our schools face keeping a full staff of teachers, substitutes and other support staff.

According to a 2018 report by the Urban Institute, 19% of elementary school students, 45% of middle schoolers and 67% of high schoolers nationwide attended a school with a police officer.

But a 2019 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 14 million American students attend schools with law enforcement on staff but no student counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers.

Gun rights advocates' canned response to virtually every school shooting is to call for more mental health care — whatever that means — but, in practice, that's never happened. We've actually increased the number of guns in our schools by installing uniformed officers while simultaneously failing to improve access to mental health care.

Dover Area, for the record, does not fall into the category the ACLU warned about. And by all accounts, Shaffer and his fellow school resource officers are doing a good job patrolling their schools and becoming a part of the school community.

But we have to ask: Is stationing armed guards at every school the best use of taxpayer money? Is it even the best way to ward off mass shootings?

All of the available evidence indicates that it's not.

According to a 2019 study of all American school shootings between 1999 and 2018 by the Journal of Adolescent Health, there was no evidence that the presence of school resource officers lessened the severity of such shootings versus incidents at schools without a police presence.

Instead, the study found that the greatest determining factor in the lethality of the shooting was the type of gun the shooters used.

This is a long way of saying: Let's stop worrying about the number of doors a school has or how to pay for round-the-clock armed police at our schools.

Instead, let's pass some common-sense gun reforms, such as universal background checks, increasing the minimum age for a gun purchase and a ban on high-capacity magazines.