The safety of San Diego’s schools was thrown into question by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the seemingly endless threats reported at local schools in the week that followed.
On Friday, the National Rifle Association’s CEO Wayne La Pierre said putting a police officer in every school in America might make those schools safer.
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.
Whether or not La Pierre is right is up for debate across the country – but on Friday, school and safety leaders evaluated whether that solution could be attained any time soon.
“Using a broad brush to paint every school as being a school that needs a police officer is not always something that is reasonable or even doable from a financial standpoint -- nor is it recommended,” said San Diego Unified School District Police Chief Rueben Littlejohn at a press conference Friday.
“We don’t want schools to become prisons and have students think they’re not even safe at school,” he added.
The issue of security is familiar to San Diego, where even before the devastating shootings in Connecticut, schools experienced a number of shootings.
In 2001, 15-year-old Santana High student Charles Andrew Williams began shooting at the school, killing two and wounding thirteen. Less than three weeks later, Jason Hoffman, 18, shot and wounded three students and two teachers at Granite Hills High School. In 2010, Brendan O’Rourke shot several bullets onto the playground of the Kelly Elementary School.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: We asked parents on Facebook if they agreed with the NRA’s suggestion to assign an armed officer to every school. Read the responses here.
The San Diego County Office of Education could not say exactly how many officers are currently available to the 658 grade schools in the county. When asked if the schools were anywhere near having what the NRA suggested, SDCOE’s communications officer Music Watson said it’s not likely.
“I don’t think that is the case,” she said, adding that San Diego Unified is the only school district in the county with its own police department.
“As best as I can tell,” Watson added in an email, “the only districts with armed officers are community college districts. K-12 [schools] have resources officers who are police officers, but they're not on campus all the time.”
The San Diego Police Department services five school districts in San Diego County: Sweetwater Unified, San Ysidro Unified, San Diego Unified, Poway Unified and San Dieguito Unified.
Juvenile Service Officers make “frequent contact” with the schools they’re assigned responsibility for, but the officers are not on site all day, said SDPD spokesperson Andra Brown.
SDUSD is the county’s largest school district and the only one with its own police force. The police force responsible for the district employs 37 officers for 223 schools. More officers are typically assigned to areas more prone to violence, Littlejohn said.
Here’s a sample of school districts and the number of officers they have on campuses:
- Friday, Chula Vista Police Department has assigned a total of 27 officers to both the Sweetwater Union High School District, which oversees 30 schools, and the Chula Vista Elementary School District, which oversees 45 schools.
- Oceanside Unified School District oversees 23 schools and has four officers. Additionally the school employs 34 Campus Security Assistants, but they aren’t armed.
- Grossmont Union High School District which has experienced two school shootings has full-time officers at nine of its 11 schools.
- Santee School District has 10 schools. Since last Friday, deputies visit schools on their regular patrol duties.
- Vista Unified School District has two deputies assigned to two of its 34 schools.
Additionally, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has between one and three school resource officers at substations across the county. These officers check in with the schools as part of their patrol duties.
However, even if districts such as SDUSD considered placing an officer on every campus, they would not have enough money to do so, said Lisa Berlanga Executive Director for UP for ED, a parent advocacy group in San Diego.
“Would every school have in their budget enough to pay for an officer on every campus? No. If they prioritized that, they would have to cut something else from the general fund,” she said, emphasizing the cuts already made to school nursing and teaching staff.
Locally, leaders have suggested a variety of changes that should happen to prevent acts of gun violence. SDPD Police Chief Bill Lansdowne said during a meeting with San Diego Mayor Bob Filner that he is in support of an assault weapons ban. Local federal judge Larry Burns, who presided over the hearing of Tucson gunman Jared Lee Loughner wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial that as a conservative gun-owner, he also supports such a ban.
Filner himself weighed in on the NRA’s suggestion Friday.
“The question that came up after the [shooting at Sandy Hook ] – should we have armed officers on elementary school campuses? But you have to balance the security versus the anxiety. If they see a police officer I think they would feel less safe.”
Others feel a conversation about mental health care would be more valuable. California schools had one counselor for every 810 students in the 2009-10 school year. Nationally, there were almost twice as many, according to a survey by the American School Counselor Association.
“With respect to the discussion on guns, I think we need to have that discussion, we need to talk about that, about how much we want to go and how much is enough,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in a press conference Friday.
Yet Dumanis said the real issue is mental health.
“There are mental health issues that permeate through most of the violence that we see,” she said. “It’s really important that we as a community step up together and say ‘we need more mental health access in our community’.”
A Pew Research study surveying public opinion on gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting showed only modest change, with 49 percent of respondents saying it is more important to control gun ownership and 42 percent saying it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.