It is fitting that, as the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of America’s disastrous and criminal invasion of Iraq, the Front Range was revisited by its own classic in turn-of-the-21st-century violence. A school shooting — a double-header really — at one of Denver’s most iconic high schools.
Following the two shootings at East High, the media widely represented student and parent protesters as calling for the reintroduction of armed student resource officers and metal detectors at the entrances to the school. In contrast to this immediate news furor, a later DPS poll suggested that support for cops in school was less certain: less than half of parents and only a third of DPS staff preferred armed police as a solution to violence, a month after the second shooting at East High.
The impulse for strong action is completely understandable. No one should have to wonder if their child will come home from school, and no teenager’s anxiety about homework and bullies and crushes should be dwarfed by gunfire. Any reasonable person would seek any measure to protect themselves, their friends, their teachers and children from random, brutal violence.
Nevertheless, the reactive, fearful reflex that begs for armed men to stalk the halls, for children to submit, every day, to an invasive pantomime of safety is a clear mistake. There is simply no evidence that cops or metal detectors will in any way reduce violence in schools.
That’s not to say that police in schools have no impact at all. They are demonstrated to increase arrest rates of students, increase the escalation of disciplinary infractions, and to reduce graduation rates. What is less clear is whether they have any effect at all on incidences of violence at the schools to which they are deployed. All these factors contributed to removing police from schools in the first place.
Neither does data support any of the other invasive security proposed at schools. It is common knowledge that the federal Transportation Security Administration is ineffective at best; any frequent flier can tell some tale of accidentally smuggled weapons. Could educational professionals or rented security guards equal the federal agency’s remarkable 30% detection rate? What does it even mean to ask for more security at the door in response to the shooting of staff providing security at the door?
If these studies aren’t compellingly emotional for such a fraught topic, we have, luckily, many examples of the effect police have on actual, historical school shootings. The armed deputy stationed at Florida’s Parkland High School in 2018 was recently acquitted of charges related to his inaction during that shooting, thereby setting a legal precedent for police to not interact with shooters. Dave Sanders, a teacher at Columbine shot by one of the assailants, was bandaged by fellow teachers — only to die of blood loss three hours later while the police stalled.
And of course, there can be no discussion of cops and school shootings without Uvalde, Texas. In a town where nearly half the public budget goes to security, where there is a separate police department just for the school system, dozens of heavily armed officers stood by while a gunman slaughtered fourth-graders.
The Denver Police Department hardly seems more courageous than its Uvalde counterpart. While apparently assuaging concerns that jack-boots make poor educational tools, police chief Ron Thomas assured parents in the wake of the May shooting that his officers would not take on a role such as the door security that resulted in two administrators being shot March 22. It’s hard to see how anyone other than police is benefited when cops are paid to be present but actual risk of death continues to be borne by sacrificial deans and ablative vice-principals.
We are trapped in this weird, evil morass. Everyone knows by now that there is no realistic political energy capable of addressing the root causes of violence: a hopeless future for children and their ready access to guns. Reducing guns in circulation being as impossible as improving the outlook for our country, we return to our principles: the use of repression to assuage our fear and inflame the problem. We take the playbook from any one of a dozen failed wars and declare:
“There is no situation so bad that we can’t make it worse with the vigorous application of armed men.”
Maybe it’s good that kids in our school system receive this cynical preparation now, to be best acclimated to the world they will graduate into. With nothing but collapse — imperial, ecological, societal — on the horizon, how could any of them ask for a better education than this?
Bailey Polonsky lives in Denver.
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