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After Newtown, School Districts Across Nation Ask What it Takes to Make Kids Safe

After the shooting at Newtown, Conn. last year, Superintendent Matt Dossey launched a program to arm a select group of staff at the Jonesboro Independent School District in central Texas.
After the shooting at Newtown, Conn. last year, Superintendent Matt Dossey launched a program to arm a select group of staff at the Jonesboro Independent School District in central Texas.

From the Center for Public Integrity

It wasn’t quite cold enough to need a vest on a mid-November Texas morning, but Matt Dossey was wearing one anyway. Made of heavy-weight beige canvas, the vest just might have been concealing a pistol. There was no way to tell. Perhaps that was the point.

Dossey is the superintendent at Jonesboro Independent School District, a compound of three low, pale-brick buildings sandwiched between broad oak trees in the back and a horse pasture across the road up front. Jonesboro is a tiny community nestled in the rolling Texas scrubland 110 miles north of Austin, but aside from the schools, a post office and two churches, there’s little to suggest a town.

In January, the district adopted a policy of arming a select group of staff members with concealed weapons as a deterrent and defense against a potential school shooter. Jonesboro straddles the border between Coryell and Hamilton counties, and it’s more than 15 miles to the nearest sheriff’s department. The town is unincorporated, so it has no government and no police. If someone were to attack the school, Dossey said, no one’s coming to protect the kids — not quickly, anyway.

Dossey was standing inside the complex’s cafeteria, decorated with paper cutouts of a scarecrow and a map of Texas. The district was hosting an annual pre-holiday Thanksgiving dinner, when parents join their kids for a school lunch of turkey and stuffing served on sectioned plastic trays. Elementary school students were motoring around the room, which has two sets of doors leading outside. One of them sits loose on its hinges so it doesn’t close without a nudge. While there’s no law enforcement presence to speak of, Dossey, who hadn’t taken off his vest, said the new policy adds a layer of security that most everyone in town is happy with.

“If somebody walked in that door and opened fire,” he said, “we would have a chance.”

In the year since Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, school districts and state governments have feverishly searched for ways to protect their students. State legislators introduced hundreds of pieces of legislation on school safety. Many called for arming more security guards or, like a law passed in Texas, for arming teachers. Others tightened laws meant to keep guns out of schools. Across the country, parents and government officials struggled with the same question — Are our schools safe enough? — but reacted with what at times seemed nearly opposite responses.

Monroe, Conn., for example, took a range of expensive measures in the months following the shooting at Sandy Hook, just nine miles down the road. The town, which spreads out from a village green set between two white-steepled churches, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading district buildings and hiring school resource officers, town police officers who are posted at the schools full-time. The move is largely in step with what’s happening across the state. The Legislature passed a sweeping law in April that included gun controls, such as expanded background checks and a broader assault weapons ban, and mandates for school security. It also funded millions of dollars in infrastructure grants for schools. Any talk of arming teachers quickly fizzled, and the Legislature actually tightened the state law on guns in school so that only active or retired law enforcement officers could serve as armed guards.

Texas, on the other hand, has not appropriated any money to school security and is not creating any mandates. Jonesboro is one of about 70 districts that have begun arming staff. This year, the state Legislature paved the way for more to join them, passing a bill that created a state-run training program that will allow districts to designate staff members as “school marshals,” an entirely new class of law enforcement (districts must pay the costs).

At first glance, the disparate approaches appear simply to reflect a stereotypical divide between two regions of the United States with their own closely held views of guns and their place in daily life. But a closer look shows that what’s happened in Jonesboro and Monroe in the year since the tragedy of Sandy Hook also reflects a broader set of beliefs about the role of government, about local control, and perhaps most importantly, about taxes.

A Flurry of Activity

Just after 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2012, Lanza, a 20-year-old Newtown resident, arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with a Bushmaster rifle and two pistols. School staff had just locked the front door, but Lanza quickly shot his way through the entranceway glass. In a classroom down the hall, the principal, school psychologist and another staff member, who were in a meeting with a parent and other staff, heard the shots and entered the hallway to investigate. Lanza shot all three, killing the principal and the psychologist, before making his way through the office, where staff were hiding, and on to two first-grade classrooms, where he killed the children and four adults.

A staff member had called 911 at 9:35, soon after hearing the first shots, and police arrived within four minutes. Within a minute of their arrival, Lanza shot himself. While it’s unclear exactly when Lanza entered the school, the entire episode lasted no more than 11 minutes, according to a recent report by the local state’s attorney.

The town had little time to mourn in quiet. Residents and victims’ families quickly formed groups advocating stricter gun controls or pushing a broader conversation about gun violence. Several parents created an organization called Safe and Sound, which has tried to offer tools for school districts to improve security through planning and training.

The daughters of Michele Gay and Alissa Parker were friends at Sandy Hook Elementary — Josephine Gay was 7, and Emilie Parker was 6 — but the two mothers had never met.   Parker was supposed to attend Josephine’s birthday party on Dec. 15. When she realized that Gay’s daughter, too, had been killed, she called the family immediately.

“In a tragedy, I think you form instant bonds with people, and she and I did that,” Parker said. “About a month after the shooting we had a conversation. She came over to my house and we had pizza with our kids and we said we wanted to focus on school safety.”

In Washington, much of the debate focused on the angry and incendiary issue of guns. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, held a press conference one week after the shooting, calling on Congress to fund an armed police officer in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

President Obama announced a broad plan in January encompassing both gun control and school security. But his signature legislative initiative, calling for background checks on most gun sales, died in the Senate in April. The school security measures fared better. The Justice Department gave $46.5 million in grants in the 2013 fiscal year to fund 370 school resource officers, who are being stationed in schools nationwide, in communities from Kotzebue, Alaska to New Orleans. Districts across the country have added thousands of such officers on their own, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers — augmenting the 10,000 or so that had already patrolled hallways nationwide.

State legislatures have taken a host of additional steps. Lawmakers sponsored bills on school safety in every state, introducing more than 500 this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Dozens became law. Rhode Island, for example, passed a bill requiring schools to conduct safety assessments with police and fire departments every three years, and another requiring that schools update emergency plans annually.

In March, South Dakota became the first state to pass a law explicitly allowing schools to authorize teachers to carry concealed weapons. Legislators eventually introduced similar bills in at least 34 states, with six other states actually passing laws — Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas — according to NCSL.

Some districts have used existing laws to do the same. In Arkansas, where the new law applies only to parochial schools, 13 public school districts won approval from a state board to arm their staff, even as Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued a non-binding opinion saying the law the districts had used was intended for private security guards only. Districts in Colorado, Oregon and Ohio have taken similar steps, and schools in several other states are considering arming staff.

While few if any districts had armed teachers before Sandy Hook, other than one in rural Texas, the concept is not entirely new and has been pushed by gun groups for years, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group that supports stronger gun control. After the shooting at Columbine High School outside Denver in 1999, the NRA’s LaPierre actually spoke against arming teachers, saying there should be no guns in school, “with the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel.” But by 2005, one NRA staff member had indicated support for the idea.

Nearly every state bars guns from school grounds, but many of the laws include exceptions that allow districts some wiggle room. Texas law, for example, has for years explicitly allowed schools to authorize people to carry weapons. In 2003, Utah passed a law stating that anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon could bring a gun into schools. Other laws, such as the one in Arkansas, are less clear and open to interpretation. The gun lobby has continued its push to expand those exceptions, with an NRA panel in April publishing a model bill for states that would allow districts to make their own decisions on arming staff. The organization did not respond to an interview request.

Across the country, schools have also been reviewing and updating their emergency plans, which can be the most important form of preparation, said Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “The good news and the bad news is this: At first no one knew what to do,” he said. “There’s a darn good template out there now.” In June, the Education Department published a how-to guide for schools to create comprehensive emergency response plans.

Many schools had already laid the groundwork after the 1999 attack at Columbine. “What you really saw was schools playing catch-up on decades of neglect,” said Kenneth Trump, who runs a consulting firm in Cleveland specializing in school safety. Schools would leave doors unlocked and many had no plans for how to handle a shooter. The Clinton administration responded to the shooting by creating a number of new school safety programs, such as the COPS in Schools program, which funded school resource officers as part of a broader Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Federal funding for that and other safety programs has fluctuated wildly over the past decade. The COPS program, for example, has seen sharp decreases since 2009, with funding dropping from $1 billion to $178 million in fiscal year 2013.  The Secure our Schools Program, which the Justice Department uses to help schools buy safety equipment, received $16 million in fiscal year 2009 but has not been funded for the past two years. The Education Department’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, which includes various safety-related initiatives, has seen funding more than halved over the same period, to $64.9 million in the 2013 fiscal year.

Despite the flurry of activity, Trump said he’s seen little from the federal or state governments to suggest a lasting change since Sandy Hook. “The question is, six months or six years down the road, is there still the interest and conversation and is security part of the mindset and culture of the school?” he said. “Whether you’re taking about Congress or school boards, history tells us the answer is no.”

A Different Culture

Matt Dossey is as close as Jonesboro has to a town leader. In addition to serving as school superintendent, he’s also the minister at the Baptist church. Dossey grew up in Gatesville, about 15 miles southeast on State Highway 36, the two-lane road that bisects Jonesboro. Aside from attending college in Abilene, he hasn’t lived anywhere beyond the narrow corridor connecting Gatesville to Hamilton, about 15 miles in the opposite direction. His wife, Emily, and mother, Mildred, each graduated from Jonesboro High School. His older son, aged 6, is in kindergarten at the school. His younger, 4, will soon be a student as well.

At 40, Dossey would seem imposing if not for a genial demeanor. His vest stretched over a tall, barrel-chested frame. He wore a light-brown beard as a “no-shave November” gesture of support for patients with prostate cancer. He isn’t the only one to have spent practically his entire life in this rural sliver of central Texas. Standing in the cafeteria, he could point to the children of his childhood friend, or to a young teacher who years ago was his student, when he taught health education in Gatesville before coming to Jonesboro. While the small-town feel engenders trust, he said it makes securing the school a maddening task. Parents expect to be able to go where they please. Closing doors isn’t foremost on kids’ minds. Just inside the school’s main entrance, a set of double doors was propped open despite a taped-on sign: “KEEP DOORS CLOSED AT ALL TIMES.”

Dossey had first proposed the idea of arming teachers to the seven-member school board after he came to the district in 2011, citing Harrold, a rural district in northern Texas that adopted a similar plan in 2007. But some board members were hesitant.  “Anytime you put weapons in an atmosphere where you’ve got a bunch of kids, you’ve got to be careful,” said Keith Taylor, president of the school board of trustees. “It’s an added safety risk.”

Sandy Hook convinced Taylor and the other trustees that it was worth that risk. On Jan. 17, all seven voted to adopt the plan.

“You’ve got to understand, we live in a place where our kids are familiar with guns,” Dossey said, explaining why the program has generated little friction in town. In a smooth drawl, Dossey described how students camp out with their guns by the football field during the summer, when irrigated grass creates a green oasis amid the dry landscape for the Fighting Eagles of Jonesboro High. “Armadillos love to come to our football field and dig up holes rooting for worms and grubs. Well our kids go down there armadillo hunting,” he said. “It’s a different culture out here. Everyone has guns in their home, if not for skunks or whatever, then for intruders.”

While Jonesboro is one of nearly 70 districts across the state to adopt similar plans since Sandy Hook, according to the Texas Association of School Boards, some Texans have resisted the move. Most of the state’s larger districts have their own police departments. In Austin, for example, district police hired six school resource officers this year to patrol the city’s 79 elementary schools — they already had officers posted at each high and middle school.

District Police Chief Eric Mendez said teachers in Austin don’t have the time for training to carry weapons to school, and he questioned the wisdom of doing so. “It could be a student that you know that decides that he or she is going to start shooting at a school,” he said. “Are you prepared to shoot somebody that you taught last semester?”

Bond, who was the principal at a high school in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997 when a student killed three classmates, doubts that an armed teacher would actually stop a student bent on killing his or her peers. “I don’t believe a teacher would just kill a kid right there,” he said. “I’ve walked up in front of a kid who had a gun. I know how it feels. I think you’d hesitate.” More likely, he said, is that an armed teacher would lead to a deadly accident.

Many law enforcement groups, including the National Association of School Resource Officers, have spoken against arming school staff. Several have said that in a hectic response to an attack, police could accidentally shoot a teacher holding a gun. EMC Insurance Companies, which covers most Kansas districts, reacted to a new law passed in that state by saying it would decline coverage to any school that allowed employees to carry guns, and some other insurers have said the same.

Dossey has seen little of this sort of opposition. He speaks of his program in a reasoned, confident tone; he likes to say they’re not cowboys or G.I. Joes. He and the board selected a few staff members for the program before buying them standard guns and tapping the local sheriff to help with training. The district has kept their identities secret to protect them and to try to avoid having students view them differently. Members of the program get together once a month for target practice.

“The idea that it might be there on campus helps,” said Dallas Isom, who has taught nearly every subject over his 25 years as an instructor at Jonesboro. Isom has two children at the school, aged 13 and 16, and he said he trusts that whoever is part of the program is responsible enough to handle a gun around the kids.

The school district has also purchased security cameras and is in the process of replacing old doors and installing a buzzer system for the front entrance, which is now unlocked. The upgrades will cost about $50,000, Dossey said, and will come out of a $700,000 bond that voters approved in May to fund new buses and other projects. Dossey says arming a few staff will cost about $8,000 this year, compared to at least five times as much for a resource officer.

In 2011, the state Legislature cut the education budget by more than $5 billion. While lawmakers restored about $3.3 billion this year, those cuts continue to loom large in any discussion of school spending.

Dossey said that if the state provided funding, he’d rather hire a school resource officer.

Still, he told his state representative that he opposed a bill that would have allowed districts to levy taxes to pay for security measures, including the hiring of school resource officers. “That’s the Legislature kicking it to the locals and saying, ‘Hey, if you want to raise taxes, go ahead,’ ” he said. “ ‘We’re not going to stick our neck out for you, but if you want to stick yours out and get it chopped off then go right ahead.’ ”

Taxes are not popular in Texas. The bill never saw a vote.

“The bottom line is there is not enough funding in most districts to finance something like this,” said Gary Scharrer, a spokesman for former Sen. Tommy Williams, who co-sponsored the bill before resigning in October. “This was an alternative. It was optional. It was local control. But the opposition to tax increases is pretty stiff and strong down here.”

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, opposes arming teachers, and she’s skeptical of districts’ claims that they don’t have the money to hire a resource officer. “The issue really is, what are the priorities?” she said. “I have found they can always find the money for priorities.”

Bridges and other teachers’ advocates say that, at least on the state level, the push for arming teachers was as much about politics as it was about school safety. Within weeks of the shooting at Sandy Hook, Gov. Rick Perry indicated his support for allowing more guns in schools. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst went further, calling for state funding to train teachers to carry guns (Perry later vetoed a bill that would have provided up to $1 million for this, citing several shortcomings, including the cost).

“I didn’t hear him talking about how we make our schools better, how we return funding to our schools, how we see that our teachers are compensated,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the city’s main teachers union. “The first thing I heard out of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst’s mouth was about how we train teachers to carry guns. Well, welcome to Texas.”

 

Safety trumps all

 

Nearly two thousand miles to the northeast, Superintendent James Agostine is operating under sharply different circumstances. Sitting at his desk in Monroe Elementary School, Agostine can monitor dozens of security cameras across the district’s five schools, with sharp images neatly organized on one of the two monitors connected to his computer. The cameras are part of a technology upgrade the district purchased after the shooting in neighboring Newtown. The district has also installed new door locks in many of its classrooms, replaced outer doors and hired two police officers to patrol its schools, adding to the two it already had.

 

Inside the elementary school, the district moved the main office from the middle of the building to right next to the main entrance, where a receptionist can look out on a new glass-enclosed extension off the front door. Visitors must now get buzzed through consecutive sets of locked doors, a level of security more common at banks. The windows looking out on the entrance are now covered with a protective film that would prevent the glass from shattering if it were hit with a bullet. Once a visitor passes through the doors, Agostine said, they must come immediately to the office to sign in. The district cut a window into the wall between the office and the main corridor so the receptionist can watch visitors approach. If anything is amiss, the receptionist can hit a red panic button that dispatches police directly to the school.

 

Those actions contrast with what seems like a picturesque small-town scene. The elementary school is a wide, two-story building with a stone facade perched on a rise above the Monroe Turnpike. A star-spangled banner flutters above a landscaped entranceway, with potted pink chrysanthemums flanking the front door. The district stretches across all 26 square miles of a heavily wooded community in southwestern Connecticut, where wealthy New York suburbs start giving way to small-town New England. The median household income is about $108,000.

 

But there are ominous reminders of what happened nearby just a year ago. The Monroe district is currently housing Sandy Hook Elementary at one of its buildings while Newtown builds a new school. And Agostine, dressed in a checked shirt and tie with white, wavy hair combed back, seems to have embraced the role of protector.

 

“In my career, the top priority is safety,” he said. Agostine, 56, was born in Waterbury and has spent his entire career in Connecticut, working as a teacher, principal and superintendent at two other districts before coming to Monroe two years ago. “Safety trumps all.”

 

Over the past year, Monroe has spent nearly $815,000 all told upgrading security at its schools, leaning heavily on those infrastructure changes. And what’s been done here has been repeated all across the Nutmeg State.

 

In April, the state Legislature in Hartford passed some of the tightest gun controls in the country — requiring background checks on all gun sales, for example, and expanding the list of banned assault weapons — along with a handful of school security measures. Lawmakers and the governor created a host of panels and commissions on everything from mental health to security, including the School Safety Infrastructure Council, which is working on recommendations that will eventually be required as part of any state-funded school construction project. In the meantime, the state has spread $21 million in grants across about two-thirds of its districts, helping them upgrade facilities at 604 schools.

 

The Legislation was the product of a bipartisan task force created after Sandy Hook. State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican who was co-chair of the task force’s school security working group, said there was near-unanimous agreement that arming teachers was too dangerous a step to pursue.

 

There’s a powerful sense of before and after in Connecticut (school administrators refer to the day, like 9/11, by it’s date, 12/14). “I think given the events here in Connecticut and others across the country, it’s becoming not only more acceptable but more of a public demand for security in schools,” said Donald DeFronzo, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services and chairman of the School Safety Infrastructure Council. “Parents want to believe that when they drop their kids off in the morning that they're leaving them, next to home, in the most secure place anywhere.” DeFronzo said that while it’s impossible to guard against everything, it’s become clear to his council that state government ought to take a more active role, rather than letting districts just do as they see fit. “We could do a much better job.”

 

The council is expected to release its recommendations in January. DeFronzo said the group is working with the federal Department of Homeland Security to adapt a security assessment tool now used for federal buildings to schools. Rather than prescribing blanket fixes for all schools, the tool will take into account the geography and demographics of a district and help identify security weaknesses while suggesting corrective measures. One school may want to build a fence around its property, while another may use landscaping to delineate the grounds.

 

All this will come with a cost. DeFronzo said the new security requirements could add between 5 percent and 15 percent to any given construction project. The state’s schools have spent about $530 million a year on school construction over the past five years, with the state covering more than two-thirds of that. New security measures could tack on tens of millions of dollars a year. While the state budget office expects a surplus for the next two years, it recently projected a budget deficit of $1.1 billion for the year beginning  July 1, 2015. DeFronzo thinks the public is prepared to pay more for security. “That was the underlying public policy decision that was made,” he said. “It’s got to be evident that if you create new standards, there’s a cost.”

 

Monroe was lucky. The district had already been looking at security upgrades before the shooting, and was prepared to spend part of its regular maintenance budget. At the same time, savings on medical expenses in last year’s budget freed up about $240,000. Within days of the shooting, Agostine asked the school board to devote the savings to additional security spending. They hired consultants, attended conferences organized by the state, updated their emergency plans (the new law includes requirements for these plans). The preparation meant the district was ready to move immediately, which turned out to be a huge advantage.

 

“Within months of Sandy Hook happening, everybody is getting busy,” Agostine said. “You can’t find a contractor now to come in and design a new system. They don’t have the horses in the stall.”

 

Still, the town of nearly 20,000 didn’t avoid debate over the costs. In April, voters rejected an annual budget that included funding for three new school resource officers. After some residents questioned the need for additional officers in the schools, the town cut one of the positions from the budget, which was then approved in a subsequent referendum.

 

Agostine seems comfortable speaking about the security measures, some of which began before the shooting, like a general discussing battlefield tactics. But he acknowledges they come with a social price, too. “For 30 years we’ve been inviting parents to come into our buildings, and now we’re saying, ‘Better not. Don’t do it.’ Years ago it would not be uncommon for a parent to come in with their child, walk down to the classroom, help the child at their locker, give them a kiss and send them into the classroom. Now we say, ‘Leave them at the door.’ ”

 

Agostine said the security that the district has put in place represents the new normal, like taking off your shoes at the airport or any number of intrusive measures Americans have grown accustomed to since Sept. 11, 2001. “The realization I think we all have to be under is that we’re all on film, twenty-four-seven just about. If you pull up to a department store or a big box store, park your car, you’re on camera. You’re being observed,” he said. “Just about any public building, that’s happening. The cost of our society in terms of security is that we give up a little bit of that autonomy.”

 

The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org

Retired NYPD Officers Propose Arming 500 To Protect Schools

Michael Reilly, a former member of the NYPD who drafted a controversial school safety plan, greets students outside P.S 55 The Henry Boehm School in the south shore of Staten Island on a recent Tuesday morning.

NEW YORK -- It’s a frigid morning on Staten Island’s South Shore, with the temperature struggling to crack 20 degrees as a stiff wind buffets the Eltingville neighborhood. The elementary school students showing up at P.S. 55 are cocooned in puffy jackets, gloves and hats as they jump out of warm cars and onto the sidewalk towing large backpacks, some adorned with the face of Justin Bieber, others with the logo of the New York Giants.

Amidst an ongoing school bus strike, it’s a fairly orderly scene on this Tuesday. Parents drive up to the curb, let their children out and move on to the rest of the day. Directing traffic, and gently scolding the occasional parent who pulls a U-turn on Koch Boulevard, is Mike Reilly, a former New York City police lieutenant who is a few days shy of his 40th birthday.

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Reilly is outside the school each morning mostly to mitigate traffic. But, as the co-author of a controversial school safety plan that calls for the Department of Education to use retired cops armed with guns to protect city schools, he’s also found himself in the middle of the contentious debate over gun control and student safety that has erupted in the wake of the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At a White House ceremony last week, President Barack Obama, speaking in front of an audience that included children who had written letters to the president asking him to take action against gun violence, introduced a broad set of gun control measures and policy initiatives to make schools safer and crack down on mass shootings. The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has vowed to fight any effort to regulate firearms.

Reilly, who has two daughters at P.S. 55 and a son who went there but has since graduated to middle school, started volunteering at the school in 2007, after he retired from the NYPD because of an injury he suffered chasing a stolen motorcycle in Brooklyn.

Reilly has since joined Community Education Council 31, which covers all of Staten Island. He co-chairs the Safety and Transportation Committee with Frank Squicciarini, a 48-year-old retired NYPD sergeant. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the two former cops have immersed themselves in the issue of school safety in New York.

Reilly and Squicciarini are the authors of a school safety plan that passed CEC 31 earlier this month and calls for the city to hire up to 500 retired police officers to serve as armed guards in schools. The retired officer would dress in plain clothes and carry concealed weapons.

The proposal, billed by CEC 31 as a comprehensive safety plan, also includes the installation of silent alarms, which would be linked to 911, and  “buzzer entry systems,” with video cameras, at schools around New York. So far, most of the attention has focused on the armed guards, with critics linking the plan to one proposed by the NRA about a week after the shooting in Newtown.

Even before it passed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun control advocate, called the CEC 31 proposal a “terrible idea.” He had previously ripped the NRA’s proposal to put armed guards in all schools across the country as “dystopian.”
But with President Obama pledging to make federal money available to improve school safety across the country, members of CEC 31 say Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott should at least consider using retired cops to guard city schools.

“This isn’t coming from some lobby group,” Reilly said. “We’re trying to do the best we can to protect our kids and our teachers and our administrators. That’s all this is about. These things are going to happen, all we can do is put in best practices to mitigate them.”

Sam Pirozzollo, the president of CEC 31, said some parents were opposed to “armed guards” in schools, until they learned that the plan called for retired law enforcement. “I don’t think what we’re asking for is that radical,” said Pirozzollo, 48, who has two kids in city schools. “It’s not about the NRA. It’s about the kids of Staten Island.”

Squicciarini and Reilly liken their proposal to the federal air marshal program, which puts armed officers in plain clothes on certain flights. Their existence is believed to create a deterrent for would-be hijackers. Squicciarini and Reilly both said, ideally, they would like an armed security officer in each of the city’s more than 1,000 school buildings. But they argued that the existence up to 500-armed officers rotating through the schools would create a deterrent for someone considering an attack.

“Most people attack what are called soft targets, where they know there will be little or no resistance,” said Squicciarini, who spent 24 years with the NYPD and joined the counter-terrorism unit after the attacks of 9/11. “With this, the thought of someone being there, you may have taken away that soft target.”

Reilly and Squicciarini think it’s unfair to tie their proposal to the NRA. They believe they’ve staked out a more moderate position, with key differences between what they’re proposing and the plan pushed by the gun lobby. For one, the retired cops potentially hired by the city would come to the job with at least 20 years of firearms training and a background in law enforcement. And with their concealed weapons and business casual dress code, the security officers would have a somewhat lighter footprint than a traditional uniformed police officer, or armed guard, they said.

“Kids shouldn’t see a gun visible every day walking in an out of school,” Squicciarini said.
Reilly agreed.

“We don’t want this to look like a police state,” Reilly said. “It’s not a security guard, with the uniform on and the sling and the holster. We’re talking about trained professionals with experience in law enforcement.”

In criticizing the NRA’s plan to put armed guards in schools, and by extension the CEC 31 proposal, both Bloomberg and Walcott have argued that New York’s schools are safe. Unarmed school safety agents are present in the city’s school buildings and a DOE spokesman said the department’s close working relationship with the NYPD has led to a drastic reduction in school crime over the last 12 years. Major crime is down 48 percent since the 2000-2001 school year, with violent crime dropping 30 percent in the same time period, DOE said.

Reilly, Pizorrollo and Squicciarini are not swayed by the crime statistics cited by DOE. They understand that schools have gotten safer, by some measures, but worry about the schools’ exposure to the type of tragedy that unfolded in Newtown. They pointed to the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, and the city’s effort to retool security protocols in its aftermath. They have not seen a similar change in school policy, despite a string of mass shootings around the country in recent years.

“Crime is the lowest it’s been, I understand that,” Reilly said. “This isn’t about crime. This is about preventing an active shooter.”

This story was produced by JJIE's New York City Bureau.
Photo by Craig Giammona. 

The Battle Lines Over Guns Often Drawn by Funding

Gabrielle Giffords and Obama
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was severely wounded in a shooting in her home state of Arizona, hugs Obama during last year’s State of the Union address / Photo from Creative Commons

Story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address Monday, promising to focus on climate control and pursue greater equality for gay Americans. Those issues, however, are just the beginning of the challenges he must face as he starts his second term.

Fixing a broken global economy still ranks first in the minds of many Americans, along with ending our conflicts abroad. On the domestic front there’s no getting around the debate over gun control, with both sides digging in for a fight in Congress – spurred on by a mounting body count that now includes a family in New Mexico, shot dead by a 15-year-old boy.

But as much attention is being paid to the politics, the fight over whether our nation’s gun laws are too strict or too loose has also raised the tricky question of how money factors in to both sides’ push to get their point across.

Emerging from the sudden debate on gun control elicited by the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., is a discussion of how gun laws are made, and who is spending money to sway votes. In an opinion piece in USA Today last week, former Arizona Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly took aim at national funding imbalances as they rolled out their newly formed political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions.

The column came 10 days previous to Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s extensive plan for combating gun violence. A victim of gun violence herself two years ago, a still-recovering Giffords attempted to spotlight the need for more money to counter the overwhelming fundraising advantage of the National Rifle Association and state and local organizations.

“[Americans for Responsible Solutions] will invite people from around the country to join a national conversation about gun violence prevention, will raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby, and will line up squarely behind leaders who will stand up for what’s right,” Giffords wrote of the purpose of her PAC.

Although Gallup polls show that almost 58 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, gun control groups are being outspent by their opponents by eye-popping amounts in the battle for Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, non-partisan that tracks campaign spending, the National Rifle Association alone spent 10 times the amount of all gun control groups combined in 2011 and 2012, spending 2 million dollars on lobbying in 2012. In addition, 1 million was directly given to candidates and political action committees.

Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handguns, told JJIE and The Chicago Bureau that there is a major disparity between lobbying funds and public opinion.

“We’re far outspent. They have a dues paying membership that brings in millions. They also, in addition to that, get a lot of money from the manufacturers,” Daley said.

However, Daley disagreed with the idea that such imbalances necessarily reflect the views of Americans accurately.

“The majority of money that they’re getting is actually from the gun manufacturers, not necessarily from membership. So you do get a strong amount of money that way,” Daley said. “Their membership does not always agree with them, either. I don’t necessarily think that all of them know what they’re doing, half the time, because the majority of individuals are for reasonable gun control laws.”

Yet Dave Workman, senior editor of The Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash., which claims over 600,000 members, said the individual nature of contributions to the various gun groups underscores the fact that gun groups have popular support. He notes that a large amount of funds for organizations like his come from individuals.

“This myth that’s been floated around for years that the gun rights movement is funded by all the gun manufacturers, I have to sit back and chuckle at that every once and a while,” Workman said. “If you look at the people who contribute at the grassroots levels, to the various gun organizations, they’re sending in $10, $25 checks, whatever they can afford…. The NRA for example reported the other day that their membership has surged by 250,000 [to 4.25 million] in the last 30 days, and that is a phenomenal amount of growth.”

Rather than leading to more funding for gun control, Workman suggests that Giffords’ new PAC might eventually succeed only in spreading the same funds to a larger number of organizations.

“This is an interesting situation, because on either side of the issue one presumes there’s a finite number of people who will consistently and repeatedly contribute to either a pro-gun or anti-gun organization,” Workman said. “This new movement by Gabby Giffords very well might end up as a competitor to some of the existing organizations when they go looking for money. Right away they’re going to get quite a bit of money for all those organizations because the gun prohibition community is looking at this as probably the best opportunity they’ve had in the last 20 years to push their agenda.”

Indeed, while there have been several deadly and tragic mass shootings over the years, including the one directed at Giffords herself, few have drawn the immediate and massive response that Newtown has received. The public outcry on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets have helped launch a serious discussion on the nature of gun violence in America and our attitudes towards mental health, with politicians like Obama and Biden calling for stricter restrictions on assault weapons and magazines.

In a nation of high murder rates, many guns, and a lot of violence balanced by a Constitution and a host of local laws that allow for closely held liberties and provide for gun ownership, the narrative on guns is being rewritten across the country, in towns big and small, on Facebook walls and in formal political debates. It is a narrative with real consequences for real people – Chicago topped the nation in homicides last year with 506 but is certainly not alone in feeling the effects of gun violence – but one that, like most things in Washington, is likely to be defined by money.

School Resource Officers: A Topic of Hot Debate, Even Prior to Sandy Hook

In Augusta 2011, a School Safety Agent stands guard outside JHS 50 John D. Wells. in Williamsburg Brooklyn. Photo by Robert Stolarik.

In the aftermath of the deadly shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., intense public debate has focused on protecting students – and the role of student resource officers (SROs), in particular – in the event of future shooting sprees.

Generally, school resource officers are local law enforcement officers appointed to patrol schools and handle juvenile disciplinary issues. The effectiveness of SROs is highly debated. A National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) report claims the presence of SROs has reduced juvenile arrests in some schools by nearly 50 percent. On the other hand, the Justice Policy Institute issued a report that found SROs had little effect on curbing criminal activity in schools, and may even lead to inflated, and potentially unnecessary, juvenile arrests.

In a recent letter to CNN, NASRO President Kevin Quinn stated that SROs might save countless lives in a potential school shooting scenario.

“We are immediate first responders for any and all critical incidents on campus, whether it’s an intruder, a student fight or a health emergency,“ he wrote. “Having a police officer on the campus can eliminate several minutes of response time when seconds count. I know the school like the back of my hand, and if there’s a problem, I don’t need a map. I can respond in the time it takes me to get down the hall.”

However, an op-ed by Judge Steven Teske appearing recently on JJIE argues that the multifaceted duties requested of SROs may impede them from actually being present at the school in the case of a shooting incident.

“A misuse of police officers on campus will not protect the campus from another massacre,“ Teske wrote. “It will likely take the officer off the campus due to the high incident of misdemeanor arrests and allow for many to die in the wake of a deranged gunman’s wave of bullets.”

Teske continued: “God forbid there is another shooting and the media asks this one question: ‘Where was your SRO when the shooting began?’ The answer: ‘At juvenile court booking a kid for a schoolyard fight.’”

Although media attention of school resource officers increased following last month’s shooting, for the last three years, JJIE has been covering the issue with numerous features and op-eds.

2012

- JJIE's New York Bureau chief, Daryl Khan, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, wrote about the effect of school safety police in New York City schools. Many argue they have created a prison-like atmosphere in the schools.

- The Chicago Bureau’s Alex Nitkin, with contributions from Gideon Resnick and Jenny Starrs, wrote about school resource officers, particularly policies in Illinois schools, in an article published late last year.

- Last November, JJIE’s Maggie Lee wrote about the thorny issue of Miranda Rights and school resource officers when she explored a case involving a high school student from Kentucky.

- Judge Steve Teske addressed the issue of agreements between schools and school resource officers in an op-ed published last September.

2011

- Juvenile defender Cheryl Cutting wrote about effectiveness of school resource officers in a Dec. 5, 2011 op-ed, arguing that their presence leads to an increase in arrests for disruptive behaviors that, in most schools, would only warrant in-school disciplinary actions.

- In an article from Oct. 2011, Chandra Thomas -Whitfield writes about a young boy in Georgia that committed suicide after being harassed by his classmates. The boy’s sister said that SROs did little to address accusations of bullying following his suicide. “She says last year a boy in her class repeatedly teased her about her brother’s death,” Whitfield writes. “Her mom says she filed charges with the school resource officer but the school never responded.”

- “Should teachers carry concealed guns in school?” asked Ellen Miller in a Jan. 25, 2011 article. She brings up the Harrold Independent School District in Texas, which in lieu of school resource officers, allows teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms.

2010

- A Dec. 9, 2010 op-ed written by Judge Steven Teske explored the topic of school resource officers, in particular the phenomenon of increased referrals for misdemeanors.

“We had data reflecting an increase in referrals by over 1,000 percent since the inception of the SRO program in the mid nineties,” he stated.

- Are hamburgers better protected than school children? Ken Trump addresses the need for tighter security measures, including school resource officers, in an op-ed penned in Sept. 2010.

- Chandra Thomas-Whitfield interviewed Aaron Kupchik, author of “Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear,” in Sept. 2010. “In a peaceful school, there should be more counselors and less police officers,” Kupchik argues. “A police officer can’t create a completely safe space for children to talk. For one, they’ve been trained to respond differently and if they learn of a criminal act they have to act on that.”

Photo by Robert Stolarik.

Obama Announces Plans to Reduce Gun Violence

President Barack Obama announced his support for a range of gun control policies this afternoon that addressed not only the threat of mass shootings but also the recurring gun-related violence that takes dozens of lives in the country every day. After his speech, he signed multiple executive measures ordering some immediate changes, while four children who had written to urge him to take action against gun violence stood behind him.

“This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged,” Obama told an audience that included parents of children killed by a gunman last month at an elementary school in Connecticut. “We can’t put this off any longer.”

The president backed universal background checks for all gun purchases, including those sold privately and at gun shows, a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, increased hiring in law enforcement, and initiatives on mental health and school safety. The last ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and expired after 10 years.

The President acknowledged that major changes to existing federal law require action by Congress – a politically difficult proposition. Congressional Republicans vehemently oppose stricter federal controls over gun ownership, and even some from the president’s own party, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have indicated resistance to considering such legislation.

“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress too must act,” he said. “These are common-sense measures. But they will not be easy to enact.”

He urged Americans from all areas of the country, especially those with strong traditions of gun ownership, to contact their legislators to show support for an assault-weapons ban.

“Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from a gun lobby that funds their campaign, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?” the President asked to applause from the audience.

He believed in the rights of gun owners and sportsmen, Obama said. “I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal bodies should conduct more research into the causes and impact of gun violence, he said. “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science behind this epidemic of violence,” Obama said.

Obama will nominate the acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, to be its permanent head, he said. The agency, which enforces federal gun laws, has been without a permanent administrator for six years.

Prompted by the murder of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December, the president’s announcements come after a month-long task force led by Vice President Joe Biden put forward recommendations this week on steps the federal government can take to reduce gun violence.

Since late December, Biden and his staff have consulted with dozens of stakeholder groups, including child welfare and juvenile justice advocates, into the causes of gun violence and research-based actions to prevent it.

About 30 people in the United States die in gun-related incidents every day, according to Jon Vernick, the co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Led by Vernick, about 20 gun policy experts with backgrounds in medicine, public health, law and public safety released their own list of policy recommendations yesterday, reaching consensus at the end of a two-day summit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, opened the summit.

The summit’s recommendations, which broadly echo the measures announced by Obama this afternoon, included banning the sale of assault weapons, strengthening background checks and other measures to keep weapons out of the hands of high-risk people, such as those convicted of violent crimes and those with mental illness. A juvenile convicted of a violent crime should wait until age 30 before being allowed to buy a gun, the experts recommended.

Summit participants also called for the federal government to appoint a permanent leader of theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces federal gun laws, and to fund more research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Justice on the factors behind gun violence and ways to address them.

The national debate over gun control sparked by the Connecticut school shootings is already showing results at the state level. Yesterday, the New York state assembly approved, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law, a wide-ranging bill banning sales of assault weapons and tightening measures meant to keep guns from people with mental illness. New York is the first state to change its gun control laws after the Connecticut shootings.

More states could follow. At least five state governors have mentioned gun violence in their state-of-the-state speeches this month, which outline top policy concerns for the coming year, according to Governing magazine, which is keeping a running tally of governor proposals on the subject.

Not all of those governors mentioned stricter gun control. Republican governors Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Butch Otter of Idaho focused on improved mental health services, according to the magazine.

An overwhelming majority of Americans, 85 percent, support strengthening background checks on gun sales to include those sold privately and at gun shows, while 55 percent support a ban on assault-style weapons, according to a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The poll surveyed more than 1,500 adults in the second week of January, more than two weeks after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Photo courtesy of The White House.

Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

A Nation Divided By Guns: Parents and Experts Weigh in on NRA Proposal for “Good Guys With Guns” in America’s Schools

Oak Park-River Forest High School senior Jack Cramer thinks that the presence of armed guards in school would only further the gun problem in America. Photo by Gideon Resnick/The Chicago Bureau

The Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. split the country, provoking dueling—and quick—responses even as gun control was already being considered in some areas of the nation, including Illinois.

From one side there has been a chorus for more security in our nation’s schools. More police. More metal detectors. On the other were strong calls to curb nationwide gun ownership, an idea that gained even more traction in the shooting’s wake while the nation’s largest gun rights advocate, the National Rifle Association, kept oddly quiet. A Dec. 27 Gallup poll found that although 58 percent of Americans favor strengthening federal gun laws, the NRA still has the support of 54 percent of the country.

The group, praised by many Americans and demonized by others, is usually fast with a response for greater leniency in gun laws to shore up against massacres and the street violence in cities like Chicago, which just recorded its 500th homicide in 2012. The toll included more than 100 people under the age of 21.

But by the time the NRA held its crowded and anticipated news conference, a week had passed since Adam Lanza brought his Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle through the front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators, as well as his mother and himself. That Friday, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre broke the group’s silence and went public with a plan to stem school shootings.

The idea: armed police, or “good guys with guns,” at every one of the thousands of schools across the nation. Called the National School Shield Emergency Response Program, the NRA’s plan would put an armed guard in or outside every public school in the United States. After a week-long national conversation about gun control, LaPierre argued that armed security is the only certain way to stop—or at least limit—the carnage from mass school shootings.

“You know, five years ago, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, when I said we should put armed security in every school, the media called me crazy,” LaPierre said of the 2007university shooting that claimed 33 lives. “But what if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he had been confronted by qualified, armed security?”

The news conference sparked a national debate, as well as a fierce back-and-forth in Chicago over what school security should look like on Jan. 3, when more than 404,000 students will return to 681 public schools across the city. Debate consumed national media, provoking a steady, and heated, stream of comments both for and against the idea across multiple platforms.

The NRA proposal invited a strong backlash from gun control advocates, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office released a statement calling it “outrageous and unsettling that the NRA would choose to address gun violence not by taking assault weapons off our streets, but by adding more guns to our schools.” Other Chicago politicians, like Democratic Illinois congressional candidate Robin Kelly, said the NRA proposal fails to address the wider issue of gun violence that pervades Chicago and the country at large.

“Their ‘plan’ is offensive and would do NOTHING (emphasis original) to protect a single child on the streets of Chicago and the Southland,” said Kelly, who was referring to Chicago’s storied and violent South Side, in a statement. Kelly went on to propose an “anti-gun violence initiative,” however, with one of its components being to “ban the types of high capacity ammunition magazines that were used in the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.”

The argument between the NRA and its critics—now including high profile conservatives like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and GOP pollster Frank Lutz—quickly added heat to a nationwide dialogue over how to prevent mass shootings in public spaces.

Meanwhile, as of Dec. 28, 277 Americans—including four in Chicago—had been killed by guns since the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, according to the Twitter handle @GunDeaths and Slate, who have worked in lockstep to keep a running interactive tally of gun-related deaths since Newtown.

Jack Cramer, a senior at Oak Park – River Forest High School west of Chicago, said of the increased presence of armed guards in school: “I think it’s idiotic. Armed guards only came into the picture because of the prevalence of automatic weapons. They’re trying to use guns to solve problems caused by guns, just so they can keep having guns. It’d be like giving more people cancer so there would be less people to get cancer or something.”

To Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, forming legislation around the prevention of massacres like Newtown, rather than focusing on smaller, more prevalent gun crimes, could prove a fruitless effort.

“There’s any number of things we should be doing, like improving gun control and mental health services, to prevent ordinary crime and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Fox said, echoing a wide call after Sandy Hook for greater mental health awareness, education, treatment and study. “But people have to understand that [mass murders] are rare events, and mass killers are very determined, and they’ll find guns any way they can.” Fox has published five books on crime research and statistics, including Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder (Sage, 2006).

Will Police in schools be effective against school shootings?

In a Dec. 21 post in his Boston Globe blog “Crime and Punishment,” Fox pointed to the NRA’s School Shield program as missing the wider point about gun crime in the United States, noting that Columbine High School had a school resource officer (SRO) present on the day of the shootings that killed 13 people there on April 20, 1999.

The presence of SROs—whether they be private guards or city liaison officers—in schools, he noted, are nothing new. As of the 2009-2010 school year, 43 percent of public schools in the United States had security staffs on their campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That number is even higher in Chicago, where high crime rates—and a sharp increase this year in homicide—encourage stricter security measures in high schools. The presence of SROs has steadily increased in this country since 1994, when former President Bill Clinton’s administration crafted the “COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) in school” initiative, which raised more than $60 million in grants to place armed security guards in public schools across the country. Re-funded in April 2000, a year after the Columbine shootings, the program placed more than 2,600 officers in hundreds of communities all over the country. As a result, the total number of government-employed SROs in American schools increased from 9,356 to 13,056, a 37 percent spike between 1997 and 2007, according to the Department of Justice.

But as Fox pointed out, SROs have many more responsibilities than reacting in the rare event of a school shooting.

“They interact with students and get involved in disciplinary action, and they’re stationed in offices inside the school,” Fox said. “The idea that they’re going to be standing guard at the door waiting for an attack is ridiculous—they have many more pressing responsibilities than the 1 in 7 million chance of a mass shooting.”

In 2000, Clinton announced that the purpose of the SROs would be to “heighten school safety as well as coaching sports and acting as mentors and mediators.”

Suburban Chicago mother Audrey Moy’s two children attend New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., where an SRO is employed full time. For Moy, the officer is a measure of safety and convenience. When her son’s iPod was stolen in school in September, for example, the SRO helped him fill out paperwork and file a report without having to go to the local police station. But when it comes to protecting against gun violence, Moy doesn’t think a security officer can offer much protection.

“The officer up there isn’t walking the halls and all that…he has an office there,” Moy said. “And for anything that may happen, we have to remember that it’s a huge high school and even though we have an officer there, something could be happening in a part of the building where he isn’t.”

To Wendy Katten, whose son attends a public school in north side Chicago, adding more SROs is at the bottom of a long list of priorities when it comes to preventing gun violence.

“We’re so under-resourced in terms of counseling, mental health services, psychologists, all the support our kids need…” said Katten, director ofRaise Your Hand Illinois, an education reform advocacy group. “I just can’t imagine that bringing more weapons into the building where kids are supposed to be learning is the right way to go about it.”

Aside from their unclear power against school shooters, many experts suggest that in the long term, SROs may be doing more harm than good. In a November 2011 study, the Washington-based Justice Policy Initiative found that the presence of law enforcement in schools coincides with increases in referrals to the juvenile justice system, in a process it says is “causing lasting harm to youth.”

“Generally what we’ve found is that there’s a high correlation between police in schools and kids getting referred to the justice system for minor offenses that would otherwise just be handled by the schools,” said Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “All it means is that more students are being funneled into the juvenile justice system, who will then be funneled into the adult justice system, and that’s disruptive in terms of long-term safety.”

It’s a phenomenon the NAACP has called the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” saying it sends disproportionate numbers of minorities through the justice system while white students are more likely to get away with school-imposed sanctions.

What’s at stake?

As for what may change locally following of the events in Newtown, no new plans have been announced to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools in Chicago. But two years after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the city’s 28-year-old handgun ban, Emanuel isgearing up to challenge concealed carry laws in the city. Targeting especially loose regulations against gun ownership among the mentally ill, city officials are increasingly looking for measures to curb climbing citywide gun homicide rates.

Gun-related crimes, while especially frequent in and around Chicago, stand out in the United States to make it among the top nations in the worldfor deaths by firearm.

At the moment LaPierre mounted the podium in Washington to present the School Shield program, police in Blair County, Pa. were investigating a shooting spree that had left three people dead and three state troopers injured less than two hours earlier. That same evening in Waterford, Conn., an hour’s drive from Newtown, 34-year-old Kyle Seidel, a father of three, was shot and killed outside a bowling alley for unexplained reasons. About an hour later, a 15-year-old high school freshman died in Wendell, N.C. when his neighbor tried to show him his gun andaccidentally discharged it, fatally wounding him.

All told, 25 Americans all across the country were reported as having died of gunshot wounds on the day of the NRA press conference, according to Slate and @GunDeaths.

For Katten, the issue being addressed by the NRA—prevention of school shootings—isn’t the issue that concerns her most.

“Yes, I think at school we need decent security, absolutely…it shouldn’t be easy to get into a building without safeguards in place,” Katten said. “But [Newtown] didn’t make me worry any more for my son’s safety than I did the day before, when I still knew that there’ve been over 2,000 shootings in Chicago this year.”

The Chicago Bureau’s Gideon Resnick and Jenny Starrs contributed reporting for this story.

Two Cities, Two Approaches to Gun Control

By Yunjiao Amy Li and Eric Ferkenhoff

Headlines from Dallas and Chicago over the past few days seem to underscore that the debate over gun rights, following the Trayvon Martin killing, is far from settled.

In Dallas, there was this: A gun range in nearby Lewisville is prepping a program to host children’s parties for those as young as 8 to enjoy cake, ice cream and some shooting. It’s a very “Texas” thing to do, they say, and Eagle Gun Range is just an example of the state’s proud stance on gun rights.

According to Jame Kunke, the tourism director for city of Lewisville, a tiny town west of Dallas, locals have largely endorsed the opening of Eagle Gun Range.

“Maybe it’s because this is Texas, but the idea of gun ownership goes back a long time and there’s a high demand,” said Kunke, 45. “I’d let my 12-year-old daughter go to the birthday party if there’s proper adult supervision and there’s no reason for concern.”

Reactions from nearby cities were also of support.

“There are no rules for how old a kid has to be before he or she can shoot,” said John Ellison, director of support services for the neighboring Rowlett Police Department. “As a general rule, people here in Texas enjoy shooting so it’s a little different than other places.”

Places like Chicago – where there are no gun shops, it’s difficult to obtain a gun permit to have a weapon in your home and there is no allowance to carry one in public. Chicago is also a place where police and prosecutors have made targeting guns a top priority to beat back violence.

Consider that 480 people in Cook County, which covers Chicago, have been charged under a 2009 law designed to target gang members carrying guns. The law, which was pushed by the Cook County State's Attorney after a Chicago police officer was slain, adds a serious weapons offense to any other charge the suspect is facing from an incident.

And just this week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new anti-gang law that targets drugs, weapons and other offenses under RICO-like statutes that allow for more sweeping prosecutions and are frequently used in federal court to go after drug cartels and organized crime. The idea was to more easily get at a gang’s hierarchy instead of charging low-level drug and weapons dealers - who are often the younger members of a gang.

Chicago – where about 80 percent of homicides are gun-related – is facing a rising murder tally for 2012 despite a stretch that saw shootings decline in nine of the last 10 weeks. Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy stressed the good numbers in a speech this week, saying the city is facing “a perception problem.”

But not all the news is good: After a weekend in which 53 shootings and nine murders were recorded, there were at least five shootings and one known homicide overnight Tuesday.

To stem the violence, the city, which is heavily in debt, is expected to pay officers overtime to increase police presence on the streets although research is conflicting about the benefits of swarming streets with more officers. Some studies, including by the National Policy Institute, say long-term crime and cost benefits are negligible or even opposite expectations; other studies show more manpower can translate into reduced crime and cost savings for a city.

For its part, Dallas saw a drop of 5.6 percent in overall reported crime through the end of February – but an 18.5 spike in violent crime compared with the same period last year.

The enforcement of gun laws, at least anecdotally, can vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, region to region – as can the cultural perception of gun ownership, said Roseanna Ander, executive director of The Crime Lab at the University of Chicago.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed.

“The different opinions about guns has been longstanding and it’s very much alive,” he said. “The culture has been alive in the Southern states for a long time so I’m not surprised to hear about [Eagle Gun Range].”

There are also jurisdictional differences in terms of how courts treat gun cases. In some areas, the most minor gun offense is treated as a most serious crime; in others, possessing a weapon might draw less scrutiny than driving drunk, Ander said.

“Courts can inadvertently send the wrong message,” she said. “With crimes that are probabilistic, like drinking and driving, maybe you’re safe three, four, five times but that last time a family of four gets killed. The same can be with gun possession. You carry, carry and carry and that last time, maybe someone had too much to drink and a person is shot dead.”

Meanwhile, a recent study by Texas A&M found that murder and manslaughter rates have actually gone up in many of the 23 states that have stand-your-ground laws - the same defense claimed in the Trayvon Martin case. For their part, Martin's parents have argued before a panel reviewing Florida's version of the law that the defense should not be a justifiable reason for death when the person who delivers the fatal shot or blow actually initiates a confrontation.

A Houston jury agreed with that reasoning Wednesday regarding Texas' version of the law, finding a man who claimed the defense guilty and setting him up for a life sentence.

But as the gun debate gets new legs and figures into local state and federal elections, David Prince, owner of the Eagle Gun Range, said the key is education – something that is stressed heavily in pro-gun states.

“The children are shooting guns in video games,” he said. “By giving them proper education, it would take some mystery out of it and let them know that a gun is not a toy.”

Photos courtesy of Eagle Gun Range.

Cutting Access to Social Media is Not the Answer in U.K. Riots

 

It was 5:34am when the hideous screech of the alarm finally woke me up. My wife was already in the kitchen on her second cup of coffee, clutching her iPad with determined eyes fixed to the screen. I kissed her on the head before pouring myself a cup as she glanced up at me quickly and without a word. Something wasn't right.

"Whatcha reading," I asked casually in an effort to seem unaware of her obvious discomfort.

"Have you seen the news," she countered.

I looked over her shoulder at the article she was reading. The headline jumped off the…paper, stabbing my eye as the roof above me crumbled.

"ROCK FIGHT KILLS 5, PRESIDENT BANS ALL GRAVEL DRIVEWAYS AND ROADS"

I stood speechless as she put her head in her hands. We had spent our entire adult lives running a rock quarry, and in an instant our livelihood was stripped from us because some thugs used an otherwise valuable resource for evil. But I couldn't be upset with the decision of the president. I mean, I value life. No one should die that way.

__________________________________________

Does this story seem ridiculous to you? It should. But it isn't far from what is currently happening in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron gave police the authority to shut down the Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook networks in order to keep rioters -- apparently the overwhelmingly majority of them young people -- from organizing. My question, and I think the question we should be asking of leaders who insist on condemning social media without understanding it, is: what exactly are we condemning?

Martin Luther started a revolution that exposed exploitative practices of the Catholic church in the 16th Century that depended greatly on new technology, namely the printing press. His movement was propagated by pamphlets printed in several languages that informed citizens and debunked myth. Similarly, many would argue that the French Revolution wouldn't have happened without the printing press. Do we ban all forms of printing in an effort to avoid dissent? Do we ban gravel roads because rocks are easy weapons?

Books, radio, television and landline telephones have all been used as tools for communication that allowed individuals to share ideas, good and bad. And with each technological advance there has been an effort to suppress the lay citizen's access to the medium. Remember when churches used to burn books because they were seen as evil for challenging deeply held ideologies? Oh yeah, that is still happening.

Despite our best efforts, marginalized citizens will eventually find a way to organize. It has happened in almost every society in history. And what have we learned? Not to understand the usually legitimate complaints of the protestors, not to address the social issues that lead to disenfranchisement, but to react instinctively and strip dissenters of their rights.

I do not condone the violence that has taken place in the U.K., and I forcefully condemn those who are causing damage. But I also condemn leaders around the world and the media for not thoughtfully exploring the possible causes of agitation that led to this unfortunate display of anger and desperation.

And I'll give a warning to anyone that thinks a temporary ban on communication services and a violation of a person's freedom of speech is warranted in these situations: just because someone can't access Twitter doesn't mean she/he is going to give up. As we have seen in Libya, it is likely to cause even more anger. An all-out ban on something that may or may not have been used for "evil" is not only an assault on basic freedoms, but also a simplistic (non)solution to a much deeper problem.