Local police, school leaders react to NRA idea

December 21, 2012 4:40 p.m. - Updated: 4:42 p.m.

School and police officials in Spokane and Kootenai counties say money is scarce to place more police officers in schools, while the solutions to school violence are more complex than that alone.

School-based officers – some armed, some not – are spread thinly across school districts in the Inland Northwest. Putting an armed guard in every school, as the National Rifle Association proposed today, would cost significantly more than communities spend now on school safety.

Spokane Mayor David Condon and Police Chief Frank Straub said they haven’t seen any specific proposals and suggested the idea was part of a debate that’s being driven at the national rather than local level.

Straub noted that unarmed resource officers already are in some Spokane schools as part of a cooperative agreement with District 81. He doubts he has enough officers to spare to put one in every school building all the time.

“The bigger question,” Straub suggested, “is would that be completely effective?”

Nationally, about 23,200 schools — a third of all public schools — had armed security staff in the 2009-10 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A week after the Connecticut elementary school rampage that left 20 children and six educators dead, NRA chief lobbyist Wayne LaPierre today called for immediate action to post guards with guns in every American school to thwart more mass shootings.

“It sort of takes my breath away,” Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. “And yet, to some extent in our secondary schools we’re already doing that.”

The district covers half the cost of five armed school resource officers at the three high schools and two of the three middle schools.

“The thought of having some armed presence at elementary schools is sad,” Bauman said, but added she’s open to the idea if it involves a partnership with local police.

Other school leaders were similarly circumspect about the call for armed security in the nation’s schools.

The Central Valley School District uses some sheriff’s deputies in its schools. “Whether that model is appropriate as a national intervention for school safety should be vetted through the national discussion that is sure to come in the near future,” Superintendent Ben Small said.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said, “We believe we will get some state and federal guidance on the issue of how we can better protect our students and staff.”

Spokane police provide 12 officers for the school district, which has six high schools, six middle schools, 35 elementary schools and four special schools.

“We will be looking at how best to ensure they can provide the safety and security our students and staff deserve,” Redinger said. “Arming officers is a serious discussion we would want to have with our community.”

The Post Falls Police Department has one officer at the high school and one who covers the other nine public schools in the city. Their presence certainly deters crime, Police Chief R. Scot Haug said, but expanding the coverage would be a tall hurdle.

“I’m a realist, I understand that it’s very expensive to try and do something like that,” Haug said. “I think that’s going to be the major challenge: How do you bridge that gap of financially being able to put an officer in every school?”

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said he’d be all for an officer in each school. “The ones we have do a great for us in a lot of different ways,” he said.

But Keane added he’s not as sure about using armed guards who may not have the same level of training as police.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he supports more deputies in schools in his jurisdiction, but it’s a matter of resources.

“I’d love to put a deputy in every school. I’d really also love to have deputies in every district and drop the crime rate in the community,” Knezovich said. “The safer the community, the safer our schools are.”

His agency provides seven school resource officers to watch over students in the Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley, Mead, Liberty and Freeman school districts. The sheriff also is vying to bring back an eliminated position for Deer Park schools, on top of his desire to replace 32 deputies lost to budget cuts the past three years.

It’s a struggle to keep each district properly staffed to handle the increasing population, Knezovich said.

Cheney Police Chief John Hensley likes the NRA’s idea but doesn’t believe it’s practical for his department, which has one officer assigned to eight schools.

“Economically, we’re not in a position to place cops in every single school,” Hensley said.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office has no school-based officers for the nine schools within its patrol area, but Sheriff-elect Ben Wolfinger said he wants to increase law enforcement presence in those schools.

“The programs are popular and they seem to work well,” Wolfinger said. “The problem comes, obviously, with staffing and funding. Right now I couldn’t afford to take people off the street.”

He added, “Personally I think it’s a sad state when we have to put cops in our schools, but I guess it’s a new era from when I grew up.”

Nicole Hensley, Jody Lawrence-Turner and David Wasson of The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.


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