Mental health experts warn schools about armed staff
Published 9:08 pm, Sunday, February 17, 2013
Across the area, the state and the country, school officials and Boards of Education debate the need for armed security in their schools.
Mental health experts warn of the negative effects, especially at the elementary age, if children see that someone must be armed to protect their schools and urge caution and education if that becomes the policy.
The discussions are prompted by the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 first- graders and six educators were killed by an intruder who shot his way into the school and then killed himself.
"We know there is a national dialogue on this. It's a natural instinct to think that if you have someone armed you are safer," said Kathy Cowan, spokeswoman for The National Association of School Psychologists, which is against more armed staff in schools.
"Guns and other excessive security measures do not make kids feel safer and increase their perception that they are unsafe," she said. "If they have to go through metal detectors or pass by an armed guard, they believe they are not in a safe place."
The state Department of Education has not issued any directives to school districts regarding security in schools since Newtown, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has charged the Commission on Sandy Hook to review current policies and make recommendations with a particular attention to school safety, according to education department spokeswoman Kelly Donnolly.
Based on a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the 2009-10 school year, the odds of a young person ages 5 to 18 being the victim of a homicide at school, on their way to school, or at a school-sponsored event was 1 in 2.5 million.
There are about 10,000 school resource officers, mainly in middle and high schools around the country, who are police officers especially trained to work in schools and Cowan said that if a school decides to put an armed staff member in a school, it should be an SRO.
There are some communities with enough community violence to warrant armed personnel at the elementary school-level, but Cowan said did not think it was generally the case.
"The reason most (elementary) schools don't have them is because they don't need them," Cowan said. "If you have a school where an officer actually needs a gun, you have a serious problem."
Charles Manos, Brookfield's director of special education and support services, said making the physical plant safe is critical and there are many ways to do that besides having security that is armed.
"I don't think armed security is the answer," Manos said, and he means at all levels, not just the elementary level. "It may give the appearance of greater security but it may prevent the fostering of other measures that could be more effective in school safety.''
In addition, an armed officer could lead a school to criminalise behavior that educators normally handle, he said.
"It could turn schools into a very different culture by looking at behavior through the criminal lens," he said. "Our responsibility (as educators) is to determine what is underneath destructive behavior."
At school mental health workshop at Harvard University last week, Manos said author and expert William Pollack argued that no matter how much physical safety and protections are in place, the diminishment of harmful school behaviors comes from what he calls "human detectors," students, teachers, administrators, and parents who notice potential perpetrators and come forward to adults who have the authority to intervene.
"They develop enough trust and confidence in the adults that they will be more willing to tell adults and parents things that might be happening in the school," Manos said. "There is no such thing as someone snapping. These events are planned, and during the planning stages, the person intent on doing something has spoken to other people."
Manos said the expense of the school resource officers, up to $100,000 each, could be better used to improve school climate and expand other services that would reduce incidents of violence.
For Paula Zimbrean, a psychiatrist with the Yale Medical Group and assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, the issue is pretty clear though she knows it's a topic of a lot of controversy.
"The message to kids is that school is a dangerous place and they have to be protected. School should be a place to grow up, to learn and to have fun," Zimbrean said.
"When we work with children with anxiety who are reacting to things that happen very rarely, the work is to teach them not make the response out of proportion to the chance of the event occurring," Zimbrean said. "This event (the school shooting) happens really rarely."
She said a child growing up believing there is danger out there, that it is close and they are at risk every day, can have a hard time trusting people around them.
It has nothing to do with the person in job, but the role of a protector, that the child needs a protector, she said.
"What is safe if going to school is not safe?" she asked.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Illisse Perlmutter, a member of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, said educators and students must feel safe in their schools but adding armed security may not be the right answer.
"Personally, I think it gives a mixed negative message to youngsters that their school is not safe and they need firearms to keep safe," she said.
Especially at the elementary level where students are cognitively limited in their understanding of the situation, the concerns would be great, she said.
So, if schools do bring armed officers into the elementary schools, students would need to be educated about them.
"Children have to have understand at their developmental level," she said. "They would have to be integrated appropriately to minimize any type of fall out."
Psychologist Jana Martin, a member of the American Psychological Association, who designed and directed the first adolescent boys' group home and the first adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit in the State of Mississippi, served as chief psychologist for the psychiatric clinic for Youth at Memorial Children's Hospital, said the question of arming schools is the wrong way to start the conversation on how to increase school safety.
"It should be what are the ways to increase the probability that the kids will be more safe in school?" Martin said. "The real issue is what can we do to raise the security of children in schools that will have a less detrimental effect than having armed guards? The conversation is starting at the wrong place."
Will it be by increasing the number of surveillance observations around the building with videos or unarmed staff taking turns?, she said.
Children need to learn how to act in ways that will empower them to keep themselves safe, like lock down drills do, she said.
"When children are given tools that heightens their sense of security instead of them looking to outside measures to keep them safe," Martin said.
"What if the guard gets shot first?" she asked, which is why the children need to know how to respond in ways that could keep them safe.
Martin said armed staff may comfort some parents, but they would have to be explained well to children so they would not be frightening.
The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents does not take a stand on armed personnel in schools, but notes that "the success of an armed repulsion of force depends pretty much on the good fortune of having a properly trained person at the right location at precisely the time of attack. Remember, there was an armed guard at Columbine when the massacre at that school took place."
"We would urge school boards to listen to what their administrators are saying to them," Joseph Cirasuolo, the association's executive director said Thursday. "But if they want any armed personnel at any level, they need to be trained as an SRO."
School resource officers are more than guards, he said, and become staff at school whose work is not so much about protection as building rapport.
The Miami-Dade School System in Florida has its own security force that requires three months of training before they take their posts and then a week a year in additional training.
To fill an SRO post, a police department must train a veteran officer for the position and then spend about nine months to hire and train a replacement officer, both which require more funding than many departments have, Quinn said.
"Right now, all the talk is about funding to increase the program," Quinn said. "No money has been released by the federal government but across the country this is a common conversation."
The use of SROs varies by school districts in the area.
Ridgefield, which has an SRO at the high school, hired unarmed private security for the elementary and middle schools after the shooting. Irene Burgess, vice chairman of the Board of Education, said there was never a plan to put armed officers in the other schools.
Stamford, which has two SROs at its two high schools, hired temporary unarmed security guards for the district's 12 elementary schools after the shooting.
The Stamford police is wrapping up a security audit in the schools and school superintendent Winifred Hamilton said, and then a more permanent solution will be worked out.
But, she said Thursday, while the SRO positions are very different than armed guards because they build community and trust so children can report issues they have, there isn't the money to put one in every school.
"That is not a question we'll be dealing with," she said.
Danbury has six unarmed safety advocates at the high school, one at each of the two middle schools, four SROs at the high school, and one at each middle school.
In addition, there have been armed security at the elementary schools since the Newtown shootings.
The city and schools have a joint task force looking at security issues, but superintendent Sal Pascarella said he's not in favor of armed guards in the elementary schools.
"I don't think it would add value to what we do," he said, though the district will update and ensure all the procedures and technology are up to date in each building.
Cowan's group mourns Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed in the shooting, who was a member of the group and Cowan said she hopes something positive can come from the tragedy.
"We are trying to get people to pay attention to these issues," Cowen said, "like ensuring students have the learning supports and mental health services. That's essential. It's not just to identify those who have problems and not just to protect them from society, but to help all the kids succeed."