Tilly: Against armed guards

BY ZACH TILLY | MAY 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Iowa City police are pursuing a federal grant that could lead to the placement of armed guards in Iowa City’s middle schools and high schools.

School District officials expressed interest in a possible partnership with the police at a meeting earlier this week, though nobody has made any concrete plans.

The district is weighing armed guards as a possible improvement in security. One School Board member, Sarah Swisher, told The Daily Iowan that the board is looking to emphasize security “given the recent increase in violence in schools.”

But School District officials stressed that no partnership with the police will be formed without first consulting the public on the matter.

Consider this column my contribution to the discussion.

The debate surrounding armed “resource officers” in schools has become unnecessarily political in the months since the elementary school shooting at Sandy Hook in December 2012. The NRA infamously called for more armed guards in the wake of that shooting, a policy prescription that effectively polarized this issue.

Instead of partisan bickering, I think this issue should be dealt with in two simple questions. Will armed guards actually make schools safer? and if so, at what cost?

First, the question of safety.

I went to a high school that employed an armed resource officer and, to an extent, I think his presence did deter some general rowdiness and fighting that might have cropped up in the hallways or cafeteria in his absence. He maintained law-and-order, but I’m skeptical that a single armed guard could stop some kind of mass shooting.

It’s difficult to stop a determined killer; the deployment dispatched to capture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev speaks to that fact. There was an armed resource officer on duty on the day of the Columbine shooting.

Indeed, the research on armed guards in schools does not indicate that they increase student safety. A 2009 study titled “School Crime Control and Prevention” found that the effect of armed guards on student safety is inconclusive. Guards don’t make students markedly more or less safe.

But research does suggest that the presence of armed guards in schools make students feel less safe. A 2011 study published in Youth Society found that the presence of armed guards increased feelings of fear in school.

This feeds into the question of cost.

If there’s no strong evidence to suggest that they will make students safer, are we willing to sacrifice some degree of student freedom or comfort to install armed guards in our schools?

Ultimately, this is all about the fundamental tension between safety and liberty. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, ask libertarians to explain it to you. You’ll make their day, I promise.

It seems to me that there isn’t sufficient reason to introduce these armed guards into Iowa City’s schools, if the board’s intentions are really just to decrease the likelihood of some kind of attack. The evidence just isn’t there to support such a deployment.

But regardless of where you come down on this issue, there’s something comforting buried in this debate.

The last year brought us a number of horrifying shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing, too. It’s easy to look at the government’s response to these events and see little more than policy anemia and gridlock. Congress’s failure to adopt new gun legislation can be disheartening for those who expected a swift response to Aurora and Newtown.

It’s easy to feel a little helpless, that our politics are unresponsive and unsatisfying.

But this debate about armed guards should remind us how much power we have at a local level to determine how we live and how we respond to the things that frighten us. We have immense power to determine how much of our liberty we should cede in the name of safety.

We have the power to speak out against armed guards in our schools.

We have the power to petition against red-light cameras.

But we also have a responsibility to wield this power thoughtfully. Tuesday, we made a mistake. Johnson County’s voters succumbed to the half-baked arguments against the proposed justice center and voted to leave the county’s facilities in decay and its resources tied up in a backlogged system.

Local politics is our best chance to effect positive change, but it’s also our best chance to royally screw up. Let’s cast our eyes down from the dismal inefficiency of Washington to the potential productivity of Iowa City, get informed, and get to work.

We have the power; let’s use it the right way. We can start by speaking out against armed guards in our schools.

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