By Chase Kamp
Copper Area News
The fallout from the tragic Dec. 20 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on resonated across the country. Eastern Pinal education leaders, parents and law enforcement are evaluating how to best prevent such an incident from occurring close to home.
The most promising solution has been the implementation of school resource officers, or SROs: sworn law enforcement officials that not only serve as armed security, administrators say, but aid in reducing crime and drastically changing school culture through classes and training offered to students and faculty.
However, SRO programs in the area, which are funded through grants from the state Department of Education, have been cut in the last few years due to statewide budget shortfalls and educating funding crunches.
Pete Guzman, Superintendent of Superior Unified School District, said his district was very fortunate to receive the services of PCSO deputy Paul Licano as an SRO a few years ago.
The SRO served the local elementary school but was primarily stationed the Junior-Senior High School, where he proved very helpful in reducing behavioral incidents for older students. “[Having an SRO] does help the discipline and it did make a lot of difference,” Guzman said.
Not only was the SRO highly visible on campus patrols and assisted with disciplinary actions, he explained, but he also taught a popular law enforcement class that counted as career and technical education credit.
“I think he made a very positive impact on our kids,” Guzman said.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has joined a number of state leaders in proposing ideas to bolster school safety in the wake of Sandy Hook.
He and state Senator Rich Crandall (R-Mesa) announced on Jan. 15 a $30 million dollar plan that aims to put a school resource officer in a third of Arizona’s schools.
The proposal would provide $30 million to add nearly 300 SROs, $4.5 million to improve mental health assessment to pro-actively identify threats and $1.5 million to expand school guidance counseling.
The proposal is one of several recently announced by Arizona lawmakers and government leaders. Crandall argued his and Babeu’s proposal is the most politically and fiscally feasible.
The plan proposes to redirect Clean Elections excess funding through a ballot referral in 2014. In 2002, the passing of ballot Prop 301 guaranteed $7.8 million annually for SROs, but the state swept additional funding for the program in 2009, forcing many districts like Superior to drop their officers.
However, a controversial aspect of the proposal would also allow schools the option of training and arming select numbers of administrators and teachers for security purposes.
Crandall said the majority of superintendents he has spoken with do not like the idea of arming teachers or administrators, but that the voluntary option would be available for schools that were unable to hire SROs.
“We have 2,200 schools in Arizona and as much as we’d like, we simply can’t fund an SRO in every school,” Crandall said.
“I don’t want to arm a couple of teachers in every school, but what is the alternative?” Babeu argued. “We need a permanent funding source, since the general fund may be eliminated, yet the threat to our schools remains.”
Guzman is among those school leaders that does not like the idea of arming administrators. “Our job is to protect the kids—that’s our number one priority,” he said, “but does that mean allowing arms in schools? I don’t think so.”
Guzman is also not convinced that proposed action at the Capitol will help his district. “Just because they say they’re going to pour more money into grants doesn’t mean it’s going to be helpful to the rural areas,” Guzman argued.
State grants for SROs are distributed based on crime and behavioral report statistics. Guzman said bigger schools and districts were prioritized over smaller ones.
“It’s the same old story,” he said, “The rural areas just get left out all the time. So what if they have more kids? It’s one kid that gets hurt that counts. Just because they’re in bigger areas doesn’t mean they should get more services.”
For the time being, Superior USD has increased teacher supervision in the playground, ordered security cameras and tightened visitor requirements.
The district has reviewed its crisis plan and sent copies to emergency personnel, also making it available for parents to comment upon. The schools plan to soon run emergency drills.
“We’re trying to be more careful in everything we do,” Guzman said.