After Newtown Shooting, New Attention Focused On Armed School Officers
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has forced all of us to grapple with some tough questions about our culture, about access to guns, and about the safety of our schools. On that last count, soon after Newtown, the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre famously called for armed police officers in every school. Well, the fact is, many schools already have them. They're called school resource officers, or SROs. To find out what exactly they do and whether they make schools safer, NPR's Claudio Sanchez spent the day with one.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: If Joel Porter didn't wear his police uniform you'd swear he was just another teenager at Shawnee Mission East High, a suburban school in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Porter's day starts no later than 7:15 a.m. He shares a tiny windowless office with the school's second resource officer, a retired county sheriff. Tall, lean with short-cropped hair, Porter wears a bulletproof vest. He carries a couple of two-way radios, one to talk to the local police department, the other to communicate with the school administrators.
Then he arms himself with a taser and a Smith and Wesson M&P .40 caliber handgun issued to him.
JOEL PORTER: I'm not the gun fanatic that some police officers are.
SANCHEZ: Porter confides, he personally does not own any guns. By 7:35 a.m. Porter is in the hallways. They're packed. First class starts at 7:40. The sprawling Shawnee Mission East High campus covers about 80 acres. Buildings are organized in pods, each with its own entrance, thirty-eight glass and steel doors in all. There are no metal detectors anywhere.
Most of these kids have grown up in wealthy homes with college-educated parents. This is one of the highest achieving schools in the area. Some kids, though, describe the academic climate here as cutthroat. Porter says stress is a big problem.
PORTER: We are on the fourth floor now. This is the counseling center with the guidance counselors, school psychologist and a school social worker. This is one of the other main entrances to this school. So doors are unlocked. I try to make myself visible in areas like this.
SANCHEZ: The school offers stressed-out students here lots of help. There's a list of 56 kids on suicide watch. I ask Porter if he knows who they are.
PORTER: Yes. You know, if it's at the level where a young person is feeling suicidal I'll probably be called up to assist or at least standby, if not be in the room. And we'll get them the help that they need, whether that is letting them just go home with a parent or, you know, taking them to the hospital.
SANCHEZ: After all, says Porter, a suicidal person is a potential threat to others. Then, there are the kids who are just plain trouble.
PORTER: My first year working as the SRO here, we had a group of students being involved in a murder.
SANCHEZ: You physically had to confront these kids.
PORTER: Correct. For a time it was kind of hairy.
SANCHEZ: Porter was actually trained as a detective and is employed by the city, which bills the school district for his services. He's even teaching a class about search and seizure. Keeping kids and staff safe, of course, is job one. Newtown was a tragic reminder of that. When Porter first learned of the shooting, one word came to mind.
SANCHEZ: Immediately, Porter says, he thought about what he would do if an intruder or a student with a weapon entered the school and, let's say, he took hostages.
PORTER: That's one of my roles also from my department. I'm a hostage negotiator as well, so that's further training that I received.
SANCHEZ: Since Newtown Porter says he's lobbied for a more powerful weapon, maybe an assault rifle. He says his handgun isn't enough to go up against a heavily-armed student or intruder. As far as arming teachers or administrators, Porter isn't sure it's a good idea. Ten different police departments in the Shawnee Mission area are required to respond to a school shooting. They're instructed to rush the school. But Porter says they wouldn't necessarily know which teacher or staff member is armed or what that person looks like.
PORTER: And if they're coming into this building and see him with a gun, their first thought is going to be that he is the person that they are there to stop.
SANCHEZ: That puts Porter at odds with Principal Karl Krawitz.
KARL KRAWITZ: You know, I'm not a gun advocate but I would have to say if I had access to a gun I would use it.
SANCHEZ: The debate over arming teachers or administrators, though, seems less important than the problem of complacency. Both Krawitz and Porter worry that in an affluent suburban community like Shawnee Mission, people tend to think that nothing like what happened in Newtown or Columbine can happen to them. I ask Krawitz, didn't parents demand more security for the schools after Newtown?
KRAWITZ: No, not here.
SANCHEZ: On the other hand, says Krawitz, his school will never be 100 percent safe.
KRAWITZ: You can't control the crazies.
SANCHEZ: It's noon and Porter just got a call from the local police.
PORTER: Right now, we're going to drive to the station and get one of our unmarked cars. And then we're going to assist our SWAT team with surveillance on a house that they're going to be serving a search warrant on.
SANCHEZ: The house is right across the street from the high school. Police believe it's where kids buy pot and prescription drugs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me know when you get set up on the house.
PORTER: I already am. White male just came outside, sitting on the front step.
SANCHEZ: The raid goes off without a hitch. It's all in a day's work for School Resource Officer Joel Porter. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.