Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is encouraging schools to apply for grants to hire law enforcement officers. Cash-strapped school districts would be foolish to pass on the opportunity, even if they are worried about the state’s long-term commitment to funding.
But school officials and parents should let the attorney general and Indiana lawmakers who approved the grant program know they expect the state to do more for safety than equip schools with armed officers. Solid research shows the value of adding trained school resource officers is outweighed by investing in education and mental health overall, in prevention and intervention programs and in responding to student behavioral problems by some means other than calling police.
In fact, a national survey demonstrates that’s what the public wants. The 45th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, released Wednesday, found 59 percent of respondents would choose expanded mental health services to promote school safety, while only 33 percent would choose more security guards.
School resource officers are trained law enforcement officers with an additional 40 hours of training to work with students in schools.
To his credit, Zoeller is promoting the school resource officer expansion in response to a survey of Indiana school administrators, teachers and parents taken before the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. Administrators gave high marks to current resource officers for their effectiveness in promoting school safety and also as role models.
The attorney general said he would prefer to see school districts use the grant money to hire resource officers rather than for one-time investments in security equipment. He cites the value of resource officers as positive role models.
Certainly, there are students who will benefit from positive interaction with police officers. But wouldn’t the same apply for school nurses, whose ranks have been thinned by declining state support for schools? They allow teachers to focus on teaching and not on student health issues. They also are positive role models.
Zoeller also is wise to promote the $20 million grant program instead of efforts to arm teachers. His counsel was invaluable in discouraging some lawmakers’ worst instincts in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.
Still, some deeper consideration should be given to school-funding priorities over the long haul. Law enforcement officials in other states are vocal proponents of preschool, recognizing that investments in early childhood education show a strong correlation to academic success and lower crime rates.
Research from the Justice Policy Institute makes a strong case against police in schools, pointing to increases in referrals to the juvenile justice system for even minor offenses when educators depend on police for discipline. Allen Superior Court Judge Dan Heath, in fact, is making a positive move in the other direction – promoting the county’s participation in a juvenile detention alternatives program that will help keep students in school and out of the justice system.
The General Assembly’s School Safety Interim Study Committee will examine the issue of arming teachers and other school staff before the next session – preferably looking beyond guns in schools. An earlier group headed by Gov. Mike Pence examined Indiana schools and made no recommendations for major changes in school safety.
In a post-Newtown age, it’s understandable that parents, teachers and administrators are reassured by the presence of armed resource officers in their schools, but Indiana must eventually confront the need to invest in early learning and children’s mental health if the state is truly determined to keep its schools safe.