South Carolina's top law enforcement officer and education chief have different views on what is needed to avoid - or at least respond to - a tragedy such as occurred in Newtown, Conn., in December.
Mark Keel, chief of State Law Enforcement Division, repeats a message reverberating across the Lakelands: Provide more school resource officers. State superintendent Mick Zais, however, favors having screened and trained employees armed within the schools. He would also allow that decision to be made at the local level and not make it mandatory statewide within public schools. Plus, he supports adding police officers in schools. Of course, the funding for any and all of these choices would come from within each district.
While it is certainly good and necessary school officials and law enforcement are entering into discussions on how to stave off and respond to such violent acts as took place in Newtown, we cannot abide by Zais' call to arm teachers or other school employees. Make no mistake. We have no qualms with school employees owning firearms or having state-issued concealed weapons permits. Only, we do not think the school hallways and classrooms is where they should exercise their right to carry a weapon.
We live in a very different world from what so many of us recall not so many years ago. There was a time when boys regularly carried pocketknives and even had shotguns and long rifles in their trunks, having arrived on the school campus from an early morning hunt. The knife was used for nothing more harmful than carving initials in a tree on the school grounds or back of a desk. The guns remained in the trunk until the next hunt. No one would or could even fathom using their knives and guns on another human being, especially on campus.
Those days are long, long gone. Today, we live in a world that has had to establish zero-tolerance policies in schools. Children are immediately suspended for even carrying the smallest knife that could do little more than deliver something akin to a paper cut. Children have even been expelled for having a gumball machine plastic handgun replica, a move that is hardly rational or logical, but is prompted by the acts of violence dotting our nation's schools, malls and movie theaters.
Yes, something more needs to be done to help protect our children, their teachers and others within the borders of school campuses. As it is, today's schools are designed differently than in the past. They are more aesthetically pleasing, but in many ways they already resemble modern jails and prisons in how they ease visibility for officials. They are equipped with cameras throughout the halls, in classrooms and on outside walls. A sad commentary? Absolutely. But a necessity.
So what more should be done? There is no way to completely stave off another Newtown, short of building walls topped with barbed-wire around all schools and strategically placing towers with armed guards. Even at that, visitors to the campuses would have to be treated in the same manner as those who visit prisons. That's not an image that sounds conducive to learning, and it's certainly not feasible in terms of cost.
Additional school resource officers will not come without additional costs. That, coupled with teams of school officials and area law enforcement officers examining each school building and developing ways to improve safety at each, would be a start. But you can well imagine how even that will be met with one big question at the local level: How will we pay for it? And that, readers, will be a matter of establishing priorities. Perhaps the safety and welfare of our children's learning environments will need to outweigh those things on the wish lists.
In the interim, what would really be helpful, what would really get at the root of the problem is if we could determine how we got to this point in the first place. What is causing people to carry out such horrific acts as occurred in Newtown, Columbine, Blacksburg, Va., and other places. Why, in a generation's time, have we gone from forgetful students leaving guns in their autos to students (and others) arming themselves and deliberately and methodically carrying out mass murders on campuses? And elsewhere?
The solution extends well beyond the weapons themselves and their availability. It extends beyond stationing police officers and school resource officers on our school campuses.
Mental illness seems to be on the rise while a core belief in the sanctity of human life is on the decline. Building walls, using metal detectors, placing armed guards and changing gun laws can and will only address some of the symptoms; they won't cure the illness.