Two high school shootings over two days last week show how radically different outcomes can occur despite the presence of armed police officers when someone enters a school and starts firing.
On Wednesday morning, the school resource officer at Dixon High School in north-central Illinois confronted a shooter in a hallway and was praised as a lifesaving hero.
Two days later, 10 people were killed in a school shooting near Houston. Among the injured was a police officer with the Santa Fe Independent School District Police Department.
Authorities in Dixon alleged that the suspect there, 19-year-old student Matthew Milby, obtained a rifle belonging to his mother, entered a hall near a gymnasium where graduation rehearsal was about to start and began firing. School resource officer Mark Dallas, whose son was among the seniors in the gym, confronted Milby, authorities said.
After a foot chase in which Milby allegedly shot at Dallas, the officer fired at and wounded Milby outside the school building. Milby was arrested and charged with felony aggravated discharge of a firearm and is in Lee County Jail on $2 million bond.
About 100 miles west of Chicago, Dixon High School is among many in the region with school resource officers.
Many, if not most, of the public high schools in the Chicago area — and some junior high and middle schools — have resource officers, usually provided by local police departments.
While having an armed officer on hand isn’t always enough to stop a school shooting, research suggests that their presence can be beneficial in a number of ways.
A report released this year on a two-year study by Canada’s Carleton University of an school resource officer program covering five high schools in the Toronto area showed that it prevented or minimized property damage, injuries and deaths from violence and drug overdoses, and reduced the need for calls for help. The study also credited the program with increasing the likelihood that students will get necessary social service and health care help, and enhancing feelings of safety among students and staff.
The report concluded that for every dollar invested in a school resource officer program, at least $11.13 of “social and economic value was created.”
Across the U.S., 42 percent of public schools say they have at least one resource officer working at least one day a week, according to a report this year by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education.
The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates that 20 percent of all public and private schools, kindergarten through high school, have resource officers. 14,000 to 20,000 such officers work in U.S. schools across the country, the association’s website states.
Resource officers have been in schools since the 1950s, said Mo Canady, executive director of the association, established in 1991 and based in Hoover, Ala. With an increase in school shootings in the mid- to late-1990s, the number of resource officers rose substantially and increased again after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Canady said.
Since the shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, a trend toward placing police officers in middle and elementary schools has been growing, he said.
And some large metropolitan school districts, including in Los Angeles and Miami, have their own departments separate from municipal law enforcement agencies, Canady said.
Texas has “a good handful of” independent school district police departments, such as the one in Santa Fe, he said.
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Many experts _ like James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and author of several books on school violence _ say that sworn law enforcement officers are the only people who should carry guns in schools.
Other school staff members may have received firearms training, but that differs greatly from law enforcement officer training, which is geared toward confronting an attacker, he said.
“We don’t want teachers to be armed,” Fox said, “just like we don’t want police officers to teach math.”
Officials at the resource officers agree, saying police could mistake an armed teacher for an assailant in the chaos of a shooting. The organization also is concerned about teachers’ ability to secure guns in school settings while making them accessible to the adults.
Despite public perception, schools remain extremely safe from gun violence, said Fox, who was on President Bill Clinton’s advisory committee on school safety. More students die on their way to and from school than are victims of violence in schools, he said.
Over the years, schools have become better prepared to deal with potential violence by restricting access, among other measures, Fox said. Also, “third parties are more alert to what others are doing” and more likely to report concerns to authorities, he said.