In the wake of the recent horrific school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, and today’s tragic events at a middle school in Noblesville, Indiana, I found myself reviewing another opinion piece that I wrote in December of 2012. That one was written in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. Fast forward six years and we are there again. There is no way to say with any certainty whether any of these incidents were entirely predictable or preventable. But what is predictable are the usual, oversimplified calls for gun control, or the opposite response of arming teachers. We can do better than that.
What is needed is a far more robust and comprehensive view of the situation. It is time for state and federal funding to be applied to a broader solution in what the U.S. Army refers to as “Full Spectrum Operations.” Full spectrum operations require equal and continuous application of offensive, defensive, stabilizing, and civil measures. It is not enough to simply shout “Arm the teachers!” or “Take their guns!” The leaders of every community should look to a broader view.
In the offensive category of full spectrum operations, we must be proactive in the areas of mental health and on-site response capability. Mental health is often overlooked in these debates, but studies indicate it is nearly always a factor in the incidents themselves. We should recruit, train and place social workers to work in our schools and set the student ratio at a reasonable level to ensure their ability to interact with students and faculty.
At the same time, it is past due for every school to have a uniformed school resource officer on duty. Both the social worker and the SRO should then be able to interact with each other and provide input on student issues that comes from firsthand knowledge. The average costs to the budgets for a school counselor or an SRO are each roughly the equivalent of hiring an additional teacher. That’s an investment we can and should make.
In the defensive and stabilizing categories, we must make our schools harder targets with additional standoff capabilities. Every school should have controlled access and live-feed security cameras. Staff and students should conduct active shooter drills the same as they do for tornado drills. Barriers can be easily placed in front of major entryways to prevent vehicular forced entry. Up-to-date school schematics for both public and private schools should be on file with state and local law enforcement to better equip them for response. Funds currently allocated for technology and facilities improvement in Alabama’s education funding should be immediately modified to allow for security expenses determined at the local discretionary level. A robust, layered defense is necessary for every facility, and the cost to create these defensive measures is minimal by comparison to our multi-billion dollar state education budget.
Lastly, full spectrum operations are never complete until the civil aspect has been addressed. Local communities need to ensure that they are fully engaged in providing what they can to the schools in their jurisdictions. Several years ago, one of the smallest towns in my legislative district smartly chose to annex land to get their municipal limits adjacent to a rural elementary school, in order to provide a municipal police officer as an SRO, at no cost to the school system. The mayor and town council felt that it was their responsibility to watch out for those kids. What a testimony.
Whether via state grants, discretionary funds from elected officials, parent-teacher associations, churches and faith-based organizations, or simply an increased willingness by local citizens to engage the process, it is absolutely necessary for communities to rally around their schools and ensure that they have what they need to prevent another senseless tragedy.
In truth, all of the measures just described are not guaranteed to stop every attempt by a committed killer to harm one of our children. But if the application of a full spectrum approach to school safety saves just one life….just one….it will be worth it.
A decorated U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Phil Williams represents District 10 in the Alabama State Senate, which is comprised of all or parts of Etowah, Cherokee, St. Clair, and DeKalb counties. Follow him on Twitter for his latest legislative updates: @SenPhilWilliams