EDITORIAL: School Kids, with Guns, Part Eight

Read Part One

“The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together, if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today, but our eyes cast towards tomorrow — I know it’s within our reach.”

— Barack Obama, January 28, 2014

The America we want for our children. None of it is easy. But if we work together…

In 2012, Atlanta Public Schools invested $9.2 million into enhanced school security features, including armed police, cameras and metal detectors. But that didn’t stop a student with a grudge from shooting and injuring a classmate outside Price Middle School. That particular shooting came a few weeks after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — and both shootings underscore the challenge school districts face: how to keep campuses safe without turning them into police states.

An article published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012 documented $28 million in “school security” spent in the Atlanta area that year.  Is this the America we want for our children?

“In a time of scarce classroom resources, schools are spending millions of dollars to prevent something statistically unlikely to happen…

“Records obtained by the AJC show that intruders are rare on Georgia school campuses, making up less than one percent of the nearly 178,000 discipline or criminal incidents schools reported in 2012. When they do occur, they’re frequently irate parents or expelled students looking to see their friends, not an armed intruder, a sampling of records shows.

“Several national studies show that schools remain the safest place a child could be.”

I have not been able to verify whether “life safety and security” investments in public schools across the nation have actually been effective in preventing injuries and death. As we noted in an earlier installment of this editorial series, between 1840 and 1899, the U.S. experienced 28 school shootings. The total number of school shooting incidents during the 20th century — before we started spending millions of dollars on “security” — was 226.

Since 2000 — that is, during the past eighteen years — the U.S. has seen 211 school shootings.  Not an encouraging number.

(For comparison, however, about 9,600 children under the age of 21 are killed in automobile accidents each year, and another 600,000 are injured or disabled.  That would suggest that 11 million children have been killed or injured in car accidents since 2000.)

Two fatal shootings have taken place in Colorado schools since the Columbine massacre in 1999; in both cases, the shooter killed one person and then himself. In the case of the Columbine massacre, the two perpetrators likewise committed suicide.  It might appear, on the surface, that a school shooting is sometimes a highly ritualized method of committing suicide, wherein the perpetrator — for whatever reasons — decides to take some innocent lives before doing himself in.

As taxpayers, we continue to throw money at “school safety and security” without really understanding the root of that problem. If the careless prescription and distribution of psychiatric drugs is at the core of the suicide/homicide crisis in America — as some have suggested — then other efforts to make school kids “secure” are almost certainly destined to fail.

And that would apply to our own community’s effort — noting that ‘school safety and security’ is one facet of a proposed $50 million school facilities plan now being developed for the Archuleta School District (ASD) and perhaps headed for next November’s ballot.

My hat is off to ASD for assembling a volunteer citizens group to help flesh out their “Master Plan.” In my humble opinion, the Planning Advisory Team did excellent work with limited information, and the conversations and discussions I heard were candid and thoughtful.

Here is one such candid conversation, held at the conclusion of last week’s PAT meeting. We are listening to volunteer Lisa Scott addressing architect-consultant Stuart Coppedge and the rest of the volunteers:

“I guess I’d like to say that — even if we get the [BEST grants] for everything you are requesting, I think going to the community for $35 to $37 million — I will just say it right here: I think it’s impossible. That’s my opinion. And I want everyone to be prepared for the amount of work it will take to convince this community that this is a worthwhile project at a good price.

“What I was really hoping for, at the last meeting, I thought we would get the full price — the $50 million price — down. But it’s still where it was last week. It’s still a $50 million project…”

PAT volunteer Brad Ash:

“Just to tag along with that. When I first saw the numbers [tonight] that’s what I said to myself… it’s still $50 million. It didn’t change. But I think what we didn’t realize last time around, is that the ‘fluff’ in there — you have to have some fluff. Because if they come back, we have to have a Plan B. So if BEST comes back to us [without funding] then we have room to say, ‘Yeah, there is no way. We’re going to go to the community and pay the whole thing ourselves? There’s no way we’re going to do this.”

We heard very little of this kind of candid talk during the planning of the County Sheriff’s facility over the past three years — a facility priced at about $18 million, and an effort that failed at the polls last November. We did hear Commissioner Michael Whiting argue, in meeting after meeting, that the $18 million price tag was too high for the Archuleta County voters to accept. (The price was actually $27 million when you included the interest payments and other incidental costs… which suggests that the actual cost for a $50 million school bond might be in the $75 million range.)

What kind of America do we want for our children? It’s not easy. Do we want to demolish functional elementary schools and build brand new ones — if it might mean less money for teacher salaries? If it means million of dollars of long-term debt that our children will still be paying when they are themselves adults?

Are there ways to make low-cost repairs and upgrades to the buildings we already have in the community? Can school “safety and security” be enhanced in ways we’ve not yet tried, or even considered?

Those are questions I haven’t heard discussed during the past several months.

Maybe we really do need a Plan B.

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.