Nan Austin

Modesto City Schools board discusses arming school safety staff

Guns and playgrounds.

Whoever thought every school in America would be weighing how best to keep children safe from mass murder?

At Kingsburg High, near Fresno, up to five teachers will be allowed to carry concealed weapons under a policy approved Aprill 11 by the Kingsburg Joint Union High School District board.

“I am a proponent of the Second Amendment, and I’m also the biggest proponent of protecting the kids,” Superintendent Randy Morris told The Fresno Bee.

But the 1,222-student district does not take other, far more common measures to protect its kids. Kingsburg High has no security fencing, an open lunch policy and no school resource officer, The Fresno Bee story notes.

On Monday night, the Modesto City Schools board took up the topic of arming campus staff members. In this case, the district looked at the possibility of arming its safety officers, not teachers, and the staff report did not include a proposal to move forward.

But the board got an earful for and against the idea anyway.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Frank Johnson, head of the Modesto branch of the NAACP. “These are children. They’re going to act out.”

“Hate is hate. We all know how it is,” said parent Manuel Melendez, a military veteran, speaking in support of arming the district security patrols.

The safety officers, one at every high school, were added this school year. Each has special training in working at schools; de-escalation techniques; dealing with teens; and the legalities of search, seizure and use of force.

To add firearms, School Safety Officer Supervisor Larry Johnson told the board, his team would need to have at a minimum the standard law enforcement psychological exam, peace officer firearms training and ongoing recertification.

No one spoke about the cost of the added training, or auxiliary costs such as new gear and higher insurance premiums.

For decades, the district had paid the Modesto Police Department to provide school resource officers, but the department pulled them back to patrol duties in 2013-14. The school could afford to pay for officers, but the cash-strapped city could not spare them.

In addition to the safety officers, the district this year added what it calls campus assistants on elementary school campuses. Those are in addition to yard duties patrolling for rule-breakers. Junior highs and high schools have campus supervisors.

Modesto City Schools also has added mental health support for students, which may in the end be the best security measure of all.

Most shooters on school campuses are not strangers, they are students, said Ed Miller, the administrator overseeing safety personnel.

“Many schools or sites that have experienced this tragedy have had one or more armed officers on campus. The shootings took place so quickly that the event was over before the officer could respond,” Miller told the board. “ I was a little surprised, when I studied this. Most school shootings, they only have one or two targets, and then it’s over.”

Arguments for arming school staff members included a deterrent effect and having a faster response in case of attack, an agenda report says, .

Student board member Riley Noland said the idea was discussed at a meeting of high school student leaders, who worried about the lack of armed staff.

“The majority feel they would like to have a weapon on campus, either locked away or on the officer,” Noland said.

Rickey McGill, a retired correctional officer and juvenile detention school administrator, said guns were not necessary. “I only ever saw weapons at adult prisons,” he said. Even at adult prisons, weapons are only up in the towers. “There are no weapons on the yard,” he said.

McGill recommended nonlethal controls such as drug-sniffing dogs and metal detectors, adding that the safety officers are already trained to use batons and Mace.

Correctional Officer Robert Lofton told the board that training in what are called less lethal techniques makes guns largely unnecessary.

“Less lethal, in my opinion, would be the ultimate approach, because you’re in a school setting, you’re dealing with young people. Firing into a crowd is never a good thing,” Lofton said.

Board Vice President Sue Zwahlen said 40 years as an emergency room nurse has taught her that an emphasis on de-escalating potential crisis situations is what is needed.

“I have watched these situations dozens of times, and they can deteriorate so quickly,” Zwahlen said.

Having armed guards on campus also raised concerns for trustee John Walker. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Second Amendment guy,” Walker said, “but this makes me nervous.”