In the aftermath of the Michael Brown tragedy, we’ve heard maybe more than we want to hear about militarization of the police. But there’s another, lesser-known trend going on in public schools: hardened sites.
That’s a military term used to define a base hardened against enemy attack. That our public schools must hunker down against gun-wielding invaders speaks volumes about a society that no longer trusts itself.
With the new school year upon us, you might wonder about security in Durham’s 48 public schools. Much of it goes appropriately unseen, but that part which is visible makes a stark impression on young minds: uniformed school resource officers, metal detectors, lock-down drills and so forth.
The district has a comprehensive eight-page security plan for the schools, and principals and teachers are bound by it. Security isn’t static, but rather a continual process of evaluation and adaptation to potential threats.
Those threats may come from inside or outside. Mostly, as recent deadly incidents in other states have shown, threats originate inside a school. And these threats are almost always from profoundly troubled students seeking payback for grievances.
Thus Defcon Two (out of five) is the new norm for America’s public school students. Long gone are unrestricted visits to the schools. The burden of proving no hostile intent is on you.
All this is far removed from the Norman Rockwell vision of daily life at a public school. That vision was real, though mainly confined to rural and small-town schools. I’m old enough to remember such schools with great fondness.
But that was then, and this is now.
Durham’s schools today are thought to have to the highest ratio of school resource officers to students in North Carolina. These officers are usually deputy sheriffs, their ranks augmented with city police officers detailed to the work.
How to pay for these officers is a long-running controversy in local government. Durham Public Schools helps pay for deputies, but as a rule not for police officers assigned to in-school, anti-gang programs. These programs cost the department about $400,000 a year.
Still, for all the security apparatus in Durham’s public schools, I wouldn’t call any of them hardened sites.
If you want hardened, consider what The Wall Street Journal turned up last week in an informal survey of schools across the country. Some schools are going beyond metal detectors to single-entry chain-link fences, bulletproof glass and panic buttons.
And one school district in northwestern Ohio now allows four anonymous staffers to carry handguns. These people are employees, not sworn officers.
According to the district superintendent, the rationale behind arming the employees came down to fairness: They can carry handguns at fast-food restaurants and Wal-Mart, so why not at school?
“I’ve always felt,” the superintendent said, ‘Why are schools exempted?’ “
Maybe that’s the reasoning behind the decision of Texas and seven other states to give school districts an option to arm their employees. Texas also gives teacher “marshals” who undergo extensive firearms training and psychological evaluation rapid-reaction access to guns stored on school property.
Now, don’t get the idea that Texas and other states are arming their teachers and administrators for the Apocalypse. The Journal found that only 78 of Texas’ 1,024 school districts allow armed employees. Most districts there and in other states rely on local police for rapid-response incidents.
Ironically, those districts that allow armed employees did so in response to the horrific massacre of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, Conn., two years ago. So guns beget guns in the schools, of all places.
A few psychologists are beginning to probe the effect of hardened schools on students, particularly in the early grades. Some talk of “toxic stress” among vulnerable students who come from violent neighborhoods to schools that could pass for prisons.
Let’s hope going to an American public school never evolves into PTSD, but even that is suspected by some researchers.
Good morning, Miss Dove. Lock and load.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.