In the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre, one of the few reforms advocated by both the president and the NRA involves increasing the presence of resource officers in the schools. This also happens to be one of the few recommendations that has a realistic chance of improving the safety of our children -- and it has little if anything to do with having a gun toting security guard on board when a rampage killer enters the classroom.
In fact, a police presence at Columbine High School in April, 1999, didn't stop two students from shooting down 34 of their schoolmates and teachers, killing 13 of them. In February 2008, having police officers on the campus of Northern Illinois University failed to prevent a former student from opening fire in a lecture hall where he killed five and injured another 19. It took 2 minutes to commit mass murder at Northern Illinois; the police arrived only four minutes too late but it might as well have taken an hour.
The real contribution of school resource officers may be more educational than confrontational. Their role in the prevention of rampage murders may not depend so much on carrying a firearm as on carrying a life-saving message to the students and faculty.
According to a recent study conducted by Eric Madfis, a criminologist at the University of Washington in Tacoma, the majority of averted school rampages were thwarted not by metal detectors or surveillance cameras, but because students informed authorities about a threatening remark made by a schoolmate. In too many cases, however, students who become aware of a threat in the hallway or over the internet have ignored it. To inform on a peer is to "snitch" or "rat" -- something that is uncool, even if it has the potential to save lives.
When they achieve the trust and confidence of students, school resource officers may be in an ideal position to provide programs aimed at breaking the culture of silence that has characterized many of our schools in the past. Resource officers typically walk the corridors, make connections with the students, and provide educational programs that provide an effective response to natural disasters as well as armed intruders. In March, 2009, a student at Merrimack High School in New Hampshire approached Michael Murray, a resource officer who had served at the school for more than nine years and was trusted by faculty and students alike. The student informed Murray that he had heard two of his classmates planning to take hostages at the school through the barrel of a gun. Within a few minutes, the two suspects had been apprehended. School resource officers have also contributed to the resolution of potentially violent school rampages in areas from Anchorage, Alaska to Bedford, Massachusetts; from Tehama, California to Lexington County, South Carolina; from Sarasota, Florida to Laurel, Maryland.
Another function of the school resource officer is to reduce the prevalence of bullying. This is an important anti-violence role, because the overwhelming majority of school rampages have been perpetrated by students who -- having being bullied or humiliated on a daily basis -- target their classmates. The rampage killers feel like pariahs or outcasts, and decide to get even with the entire school.
Some wait until they have graduated to seek revenge. At Virginia Tech in 2007, for example, the killer of 32 innocent college students and faculty chose to target a convenient and vulnerable set of victims on campus who acted as surrogates for his real enemies -- his classmates in middle- and high-school who had humiliated him for his flat affect, shyness, and difficulty with the English language. The Newtown killer may have employed the same psycho-logic. He had reportedly been a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he had been a victim of severe bullying. Apparently, his negative experiences in the classroom never left his consciousness, even as an adult.
If we want to reduce the prevalence of school rampages, we should also reduce the prevalence of bullying, and it should start in the elementary school years, when bullying peaks. Most states now have anti-bullying statutes, but many such laws and policies are less than effective. Schools should be held responsible for allowing such practices to continue unabated. Any school that fails to intervene should face tough sanctions.
Resource officers have established or supported the enactment of effective anti-bullying programs in their schools. The town of Boaz, Alabama, for example, recently initiated the "Stand For the Silent" program, an anti-bullying effort that seeks to teach high school students that it is socially unacceptable to harass or torment their classmates. Resource officers in Boaz High School have also set up designated receptacles in which students can leave anonymous reports of bullying incidents.
The majority of Americans support the notion of resource officers. They now serve in half of all of our public schools. Even if every school in the United States had one, however, there would remain a limit as to how safe and secure we were able to keep our children. Keep in mind that children are everywhere, not only in schools but also on buses and playgrounds, in parks, at community centers, skating rinks, cinemas, day-care and pre-school programs, teen centers, swimming pools, and so on.
Hundreds of children are shot down every year not by a semi-automatic rifle with a large capacity magazine wielded by a rampage killer, but by one of the two hundred million small-caliber handguns on the streets and in our homes. Moreover, the largest number of our youthful homicide victims are murdered not by some deranged classmate or stranger, but by their own parents. Typically, it is one shot; one vulnerable victim.
Will we choose to place law enforcement personnel in all of these venues? Are we ready and willing to become a police state? Or, will we instead choose to take a reasonable approach to the reduction of violence -- one that doesn't require eliminating our personal freedoms but still protects our children from their classmates?
Jack Levin is a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. He is also the co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder."