Mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla., in February are terrifying, abhorrent and a sign of something extremely troubling in our society. But we shouldn't be misled into believing they're common.
In fact, in the more than five years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, there's been one shooting involving an injury or fatality for every 1,000 schools in the country. According to David Ropeik, a Harvard scholar who studies risk, the chance of a child being shot and killed in school is far lower than the chance that he or she will have an accident on the way to or from school, catch a potentially fatal disease while in school, or suffer a potentially deadly injury playing sports at school.
Of course that doesn't mean that school shootings shouldn't worry us, or that we shouldn't take serious steps to prevent them. But it does suggest that, despite the attention and news coverage they get, these events are relatively infrequent and not imminent at any given school — and that we should be tactical and thoughtful about the best way to prevent them.
That's not the case with Assembly Bill 2067, which would mandate that an armed security officer be posted at every publicly funded school in California, including elementary schools and charter schools. The state would pick up the tab, estimated at $1 billion per year, according to the office of the bill's author, Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City).
Armed security guards might make sense at some schools; Los Angeles Unified already has such officers at almost all of its high schools and about 20% of its middle schools. But it has long resisted placing them at elementary campuses; and why should it or any other district be forced to? The state is supposed to be ceding more control to local school districts, which are in the best position to determine their safety needs.
Besides, even if the state has an additional $1 billion to hand to schools, it's unclear whether this would be the wisest expenditure. It's easy to rely on the cliché, "whatever it costs to save even a single life … ," but, in fact, dollars are limited and choices must be made about where they will do the most good. Perhaps this money could be better spent providing improved medical and mental healthcare to children, more nutritious food or outstanding recreational facilities.
It's hard to imagine how this bill passed through the Assembly Education Committee — on a unanimous vote, no less. Was that the result of a lack of courage among Assembly members desperate to show they cared about campus safety?
Gallagher is currently working on amendments to the bill, which could improve it. But he has a long way to go. At this point, no one knows whether or how much this proposal would improve school security or protect students. Officers currently working at L.A. schools were hired mainly to keep peace among students and to protect them in potentially dangerous neighborhoods, not to respond to random shootings.
Gallagher cites the March case of an armed school officer in Maryland who bravely ran to the scene of a shooting after the gunman had injured two students. That act may have prevented further injuries or even deaths. But then, of course, there's also the armed security officer at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who stayed outside rather than enter the building and confront the gunman.
Even if a security officer is brave enough for the job, school campuses can be large spaces with multiple access points. Would a single armed officer really be able to prevent a random shooting by a crazed person determined to wreak havoc? Is it clear that adding another gun to the mix and increasing the chances of a firefight would reduce the overall number of deaths?
Maybe, but the evidence is lacking. We prefer the approach taken by Los Angeles city and school officials, examining the issue in a more comprehensive way, involving the community and multiple agencies, and looking for multipronged answers to frightening new questions about safety.