Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. September 18, 2022.

Editorial: School security spending makes sense, but more guns at school doesn’t

Research casts doubt on the idea that what a school gains in deterrence and response times will exceed what it loses in increased risk of accidents or other problems.

Iowa is investing in the physical safety of people inside school buildings, dedicating $100 million of federal money toward assessing and improving building security.

It’s not a comprehensive approach to all aspects of physical safety and health — no commitment to widespread investment in ventilation upgrades and nurse staffing, no separate work to make it more difficult for people to obtain dangerous weapons. This step apparently required the confluence of the second American elementary school shooting massacre in a decade and the availability of billions of dollars appropriated for coronavirus-related responses in education.

But it’s something. Expert reviews of building vulnerabilities, dedicated money for improvements, a state agency devoting its time to researching and promoting best practices — all those aspects of the new Governor’s School Safety Bureau are welcomed.

Still, Americans have painfully realized over the past 30 years that they cannot make schools impregnable. Every security measure and technological advance represents an attempt to improve the odds of heading off or mitigating a catastrophe. It makes sense that, as an attempt to find any further morsel of preparedness, some schools have reacted by introducing more weapons to buildings, handled by either law enforcement officers or school staff members.

In Florida, it’s the law for every building to have someone armed, a policy put in place after 17 people died in a shooting at a high school in Parkland. Some Republican politicians started floating the idea of giving guns to more U.S. teachers after this spring’s slaughter of 19 young children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. And in Iowa, the school board in Spirit Lake has adopted a policy to train up to 10 people — none of them teachers — to carry weapons at school buildings.

This impulse is understandable, and comments from school board members and administrators in Spirit Lake reveal that the idea was developed thoughtfully. If such a policy is going to be implemented, it’s wise to exclude classroom teachers and to require extensive training for the staff members who will be armed, as the Spirit Lake board has done. The Dickinson County News reported school board member Scott Trautman as saying he was “as far from saying yes to this as I could possibly imagine” when the proposal first came up. He’s now voted for the policy twice. “My love for kids far outweighs what I don’t like about guns,” he told the newspaper.

But research — about adults’ guns at schools specifically, and about what happens in any place where guns are kept generally — casts doubt on the idea that what a school gains in deterrence and response times will exceed what it loses in increased risk of accidents or other problems.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has documented nearly 100 incidents nationwide, over five years, in which adults’ firearms were mishandled in schools. Any such case could have a tragic outcome. We see this already with poorly secured weapons at homes. And at least two studies have found no benefit in reducing mass shootings from having armed officers on school campuses. Anecdotally, and infamously, armed officers — including from the school district’s own force — responded quickly to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and then did nothing.

Four years ago, when President Donald Trump idly suggested that guns were a complete answer to school safety, this editorial board came up with 26 questions that any such plan would need answers for. Administrators and directors in Spirit Lake and other places pondering arming staff would do well to spell out for their constituents their responses to some of them, such as “Will racial sensitivity courses be required?” and “Will a (staff member) be liable if students take a… gun and shoot themselves or others?”

In the absence of restrictions on acquiring firearms, especially the most dangerous weapons with semi-automatic firing, the work of the Iowa Governor’s School Safety Bureau is the more promising response. While the bureau is still ramping up its work, its chief, Department of Public Safety Special Agent in Charge Don Schnitker, told Axios as the school year began that dozens of districts had already signed up to have buildings evaluated for vulnerabilities. They can then receive up to $50,000 per building for improvements. Schools also can get emergency radios and sign up for training programs.

Iowans should encourage their local schools to take full advantage of these resources — and advocate to keep firearms out of schools.