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MARION CENTER: School board debates school security

by on March 19, 2013 11:00 AM

MARION CENTER -- The question of whether guns and armed security officers are needed in schools, and how their presence might impact educational programming and taxes, was discussed again Monday during an expanded public comment period at the school board's monthly work session.

School district resident Paul Weston said he believes all the school staff members should have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, "and advertise that."

Weston said he was not in favor of arming staff members, but if they all had protection permits, "anyone in the building could be carrying a firearm at any time."

Resident Bob Colgan said the school district's staff should not be armed.

"They are not trained to take a life. They are not trained to give up their life," Colgan said.

"I'm comfortable if we have to raise taxes" or eliminate an athletic program to afford more security, he said.

Dr. Lindsay Parks, the school district's physician for 35 years, said that since a shooting in Israel in 1970 that left a dozen people dead, Israeli teachers are trained and armed.

And a strategy that has become popular in Texas, according to Parks, is for some teachers, after psychological testing and weapons training, to carry firearms. Those armed teachers are connected by beepers. The students and other teachers don't know who is and who is not armed.

"We're in a very select group. … We've already had a school shooting," Parks said. "There's a lady here who will tell you she's here by the grace of God. … The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Parks was referring to school board secretary Marcia Conner, who was wounded in the thigh during a shooting in the district's administration office in June 2002.

Resident Dawn Spence said she supports increased security in the district's schools -- more security cameras, locks and barricades -- but, she said, "adding armed guards just doesn't add up." Armed guards can't be on every school bus and at every sports event and field trip, she said.

"I truly believe we need to focus on mental health issues," said Dorothy Clawson, a district resident who also is employed by the district. She added she doesn't believe there should be an armed guard in the schools. If the staff and students follow safety procedures, "that's our best bet," she said.

District Superintendent Frank Garritano said the district already addresses the needs of students who are identified as being at-risk with mental health issues. They are referred to guidance counselors and nurses, he said.

District resident Tom Lukehart said he feels there is a need for an armed guard in the schools during the school day. It should not be a teacher, but a retired police officer, and in plain clothes, he said.

"Our community has a tough issue to address" and the school board members have a "tremendous burden" to carry in making decisions on security, said Don Magas, a former school director.

Magas said a question facing the board is, "How much of our independence do we give up," and still retain the comfort in the schools that resembles homes and the community?

Rick Gemmell, a state trooper who lives in the school district, said it's important to understand the difference between response time and reaction time.

In a rural school district, response time -- the time it would take a state trooper to arrive on the scene -- is probably longer than 15 minutes. Reaction time by someone properly trained and already in the school building could be less than one minute, he said.

"Every district is struggling with the same thing," Sgt. Michael Schmidt of the state police at Indiana told the board and district residents. "You have (here) a snapshot of the state of the United States. … You have to do the best you can with what you have at this point in time. In a lot of ways, it comes down to money."

District solicitor Michael Delaney agreed. The school security issue, he said, is about how much can the district take from what's for education and spend for something that's not education.

"Your first responsibility is education," he told the directors. "Your responsibility should not be global. … It is not your responsibility to raise children." That is the responsibility of parents, he said.

Delaney said the directors must decide what the district can afford without taking away from the education of the district's children, "and recognize that's not total security. … It is impossible to secure your school children totally. … Your job, in my opinion, is to educate children, not secure them."

"We can't stop everything" from happening, said director Lori Marshall. "Every penny spent on security will take away from educational programming."

Test scores are not soaring, and "we offer an average education, in my opinion," Marshall said.

Then why not raise taxes to pay for additional security measures rather than taking money from educational programming to pay for it, asked director Charles Glasser.

"Our taxpayers can't afford to pay more," Marshall answered, adding that nearly half of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunches. "The only way out of poverty is education."

Marshall said the probability of a massacre in one of the district's schools is low, but the probability the district's children need to be better educated "is close to 100 percent," she said.

And she noted that many police officers who die on duty are killed with their own firearms.

"That's why having loaded guns in the schools is not the answer," she said.

Schmidt reminded the directors that "law enforcement still exists," and if there's an emergency in the schools, "we're coming," Schmidt said. "Your discussion needs to be what you're going to do until we get here."

In reality, the combination of hardening the buildings (making it more difficult for unauthorized people to get in) and adding security officers may be the answer, Schmidt said. "Anything you do to advance your position is better than nothing."

Schmidt said the district doesn't have a firefighter stationed in each building, and yet the staff, faculty and students know what to do in response to a fire until the fire department arrives.

Director Keith Isenberg cited several steps the board and administration have already taken to improve security, including installing security cameras, installing shatter-proof glass at some school entrances and tightening up existing policies, such as keeping doors closed and locked.

"If you really want to address student safety, don't let them drive to school. … We'd take away the leading cause of death" among students, Isenberg said. The district could also put more emphasis on preventing suicides among teens rather than homicides, he said.

There is no legal requirement from the government for school districts to have security guards or officers in the schools.

Solicitor Delaney in January told the directors their responsibility in making decisions about school security was "to act as a reasonable man would." And he said Monday that in his legal opinion not hardening the schools and not adding a guard would be reasonable, noting, again, that several security measures have already been implemented.

"Would hardening the schools and adding a security guard be reasonable?" Garritano asked Delaney.

"Yes," if it does not take away from educational programming, Delaney said.

Board President Gregg Sacco said the agenda at next week's voting meeting will include items to keep the discussion on school security moving forward. Among those items will be a recommendation from the administration to install 42 additional security cameras. And the directors might decide to have administrators develop a school security officer job description and a staffing model outlining where and when security officers may be stationed on school property. The administration might also -- depending on the outcome of a board vote -- be instructed to advertise for security officers, listing the required minimum qualifications.



Randy Wells has been a reporter and staff writer at The Indiana Gazette since 1988. His regular assignments include coverage of the Indiana County commissioners, Indiana Borough council and the Marion Center Area School District. His email address is rwells@indianagazette.net.
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