Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for being with us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yesterday, more deadly gun violence on school grounds, this time in New Orleans.
Reporter: This is a live shot right outside of Xavier University's Convocation Center. EMS has confirmed three people were shot following the graduation ceremony at Morris Jeff High School.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to local reports, a fight between two people following a graduation escalated into gun violence. Two men were shot. The grandmother of one of the graduates die from her wounds. Coming just days after the massacre of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas, another shooting on school grounds feels like simply too much.
Wherever you're listening to us, walking, driving, doing dishes, I want you to do one thing with me right now if you can. Take a deep breath because, trust me, I get it. This feels terrifying. When we are afraid, it is very understandable as a human response to seek out almost anything that can make us feel safe. After all, our children must go to school, but at the same time, our country has more guns than people, and decades of political polarization and policy inaction following mass shootings have left some pretty deep pessimism about any substantive reduction in the broad availability of deadly weapons. Where can we find safety?
Do we need metal detectors and clear backpacks, zero-tolerance policies, teams of adults scouring the social media accounts of young people for clues? Can we be safe if we staff our school with armed guards? In Uvalde, Texas, police were on the scene and even in the building within minutes of the gunman entering the elementary school, but it took more than an hour to engage and kill the shooter.
Here is Texas Department of Public Safety Director, Steven McCraw, in the press conference on Friday.
Steven McCraw: Like I said, there were 19 officers in there. In fact, there were plenty of officers to do whatever needed to be done with one exception, is that the incident commander inside believed he needed more equipment and more officers to do a tactical breach. Of course, it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision, period. There's no excuse for that. It was the wrong decision.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We wanted to know your perspective on armed officers in our schools.
Jennifer: My name is Jennifer, I'm calling from New York City. I absolutely, 100%, do not support armed officers in school. I've been teaching in public schools for 15 years and policing our students is not the answer. It doesn't make them feel safer, and it doesn't make them safer. We need to address why we have so many guns so easily on our streets and why we have such a large number of people in society who are reverting to have violence against each other.
Kim: Hello, my name is Kim. I'm a school teacher in Hillsborough County. I 100% support having multiple armed police officers at our school.
Caller: Yes, with a caveat. What is their level of training? What are their rules of engagement? How are they going to be armed and protected, and what sort of psychological evaluation is going to be undertaken? Are they, in fact, willing to put themselves in harm's way between a shooter and a child, or are they just there to collect a paycheck and be an overly enhanced security guard? The devil is in the details.
Susan: Hi, this is Susan from Minneapolis. We know that officers are more likely to direct a violent behavior towards Black and brown children and towards children who have disabilities.
Michael: Hi, this is Michael from Duluth, Minnesota. I think at the very least there should be some presence in school, one that is carefully thought out and not just randomly put there.
Ian: Hi, this is Ian from Los Angeles. Good guys with guns don't work. We need to get a solution against the guns. Good guys against bad guys with guns just do not work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As always, we're grateful to everyone who shared with us. Let's keep talking. With me now is Marc Schindler. He's the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. Marc, thanks for joining The Takeaway today.
Marc Schindler: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just go right to the core. Are armed law enforcement officers on school grounds the most effective way to keep kids safe in school?
Marc Schindler: Unfortunately, there's no evidence and no evidence that I'm aware of that shows that school police officers make schools safe. If there were evidence to show that, I would be very supportive. I have two high school-aged kids and I want them to be safe, but there's no evidence that I'm aware of that shows that school police officers make schools safer, and, in fact, there is evidence of unintended consequences from having police officers on school campuses.
There's a range of implications that we're aware of based on the research, both regarding safety and other consequences that, unfortunately, are negative for young people in terms of safety. What we know is that police officers on campus-- and I prefer to call them school police officers than school resource officers, and we can talk about that as well. What we know is that police officers on campus actually tend to make kids feel less safe.
It's not just police officers, it's everything that's been done particularly over the last 20 or so years to so-called harden our schools. That involves security cameras, metal detectors, and police. What the research shows is that kids actually when you have all those security features, kids tend to feel less safe. It makes sense because what we're doing is sending messages to kids is that there's some reason that they should fear for their safety. When you walk into a building and there's all sorts of security features, it actually makes people feel less safe.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Give us a little history. When did we start seeing armed police officers on school campuses?
Marc Schindler: They're not all necessarily armed. In fact, many school police officers don't carry weapons and that varies by jurisdiction. We've had police in schools going back to the 1940s and '50s. Not surprisingly, historically, police were introduced in schools and communities where we started to see more immigrants, more people of color, places like Detroit, Michigan, and places like San Francisco actually. The real ratcheting up is post-Columbine.
In 1999, with the horrific first really big mass shooting in a school that got lots and lots of attention, the federal government acted after that and put in place a very significant federal funding to incentivize and support school districts to place police officers in their schools and so the numbers went up very dramatically after Columbine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's hard to talk about this issue without talking about race. Why?
Marc Schindler: Where we have school police, we see a higher rate of suspensions and expulsions of kids from school as well as kids being referred to the justice system, what many refer to as the school to prison pipeline. Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, those consequences fall disproportionately on young people of color.
Essentially, what we're seeing these days is behavior that when I was a kid in school would most often be handled in the principal's office, now more often is being handled in a police precinct. We're really criminalizing a lot of behavior that never should be referred to the justice system. Schools are becoming a place that are a pipeline to the justice system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We end up with these images that I think all of us have seen over recent years of kindergarteners in handcuffs. Is that where we're going with this?
Marc Schindler: That does happen. More often than not, we're talking about high school settings, where you have school police officers who are getting involved in discipline situations and really trying to be involved in moderating behavior in a school setting but doing it with a law enforcement approach. That's really concerning. This is not to say that all or even most school police officers are bad people who are bad for kids. Most are good, decent, hardworking people who are trying to do their job, but they're just not particularly well-suited for a school setting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are schools an unsafe place for our children?
Marc Schindler: We wish they would be safer. Obviously, in the wake of Uvalde and when we think about these school shootings, it's a tremendous concern. However, the data does show that schools are still quite safe places. Young people are much more likely to be victimized in the community than they are in a school setting. Schools still are quite safe places, but we should be doing everything we can to make them safer.
Of course, one school shooting, whether it's one young person or 19 is too many, and it's a tragedy for families and communities, and so we need to do everything we can to try to make them even more safer than they are. They are quite safe, and I think parents should feel that their kids are in a safe place by and large, but it is concerning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wonder for all of us who are parents, who desperately want to keep our children and other children in our communities safe, if our partisan and political divides keep us from seeing the complexity of this picture, so that those of us who might think a school resource officer is the solution are unable to see the ways that gun control might help, and that those of us who support gun control might be underplaying the question of mental health. As you look at this big picture, this complex question about how something like Uvalde happens, what do you see?
Marc Schindler: This should be a nonpartisan issue. We're talking about safety of our kids in schools, that should be about as nonpartisan as gets. It's impossible to really talk about these issues without talking about race. It's also impossible to talk about these issues without talking about the role of firearms, and the easy accessibility of guns, particularly lethal automatic weapons.
All of the discussion about how the police responded, whether we should have police in schools, those are all important, but I am concerned that they do distract us from the core issue, which is the easy availability of firearms, particularly for people who may have troubled past, may have mental health issues. That should be the, first and foremost, the conversation that we have.
Unfortunately, that is a very politically divisive conversation. In fact, many people say we can't even address that issue and throw their arms up. Maybe we'll spend more time talking about police and schools and school security measures, but at the end of the day, we really should be talking about the availability of firearms.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Marc, thank you so much for your time today.
Marc Schindler: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's hear from more of you on this.
Pam: Hi, I'm Pam from Portland, Oregon. No, I do not support armed police in schools. Where do we stop? Do we put armed police in the mall? Do we put armed police in every church? Those are a band-aid on a much larger social problem.
Caller: I come from the UK, where our police are not armed, our citizens are not armed, and people do not die in mass shootings. The problem is too many guns, and the solution is not having even more of them in schools.
Caller: Hi, my name is [unintelligible 00:12:52]. I live in Las Vegas, Nevada. I think it is a totally, totally terrible idea to have armed presence in schools. Schools are a place of learning. I think that what is more important is to get to the root of why people are angry, or why people feel that it's okay to destroy one another.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 877-869-8253, that's our number, 8778-MyTake. Now, after the break, we'll talk with the North Carolina sheriff, the sheriff in my county, in fact, about how he sees the role of SROs and what he's doing to address gun violence in his community.
We've been discussing School Resource Officers and whether they help to keep schools safe. Following the tragic shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I live, expanded the presence of School Resource Officers to include armed officers at elementary schools. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough is the sheriff for Forsyth County and he joins me now. Sheriff Kimbrough, thanks for joining me here on The Takeaway.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: Thank you for the invitation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about why you decided to send School Resource Officers to patrol elementary schools here in Forsyth following this mass shooting.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: Since 2018, we've asked for SROs in all of the schools, but as always, budget money always plays a factor in services that are delivered to the residents. We realized since 2018 that it's a necessary, and after the shooting in Texas, I made the decision that everyone in the building that was sworn and carried a weapon would be working in a school, elementary school, until the end of school, including myself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You went to an elementary school as well?
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: Yes. Every day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We just had a conversation with a researcher who says to us that there's no evidence that having School Resource Officers, or, as you call them, school police officers actually makes it any less likely that there will be violence in schools. Help us to understand then your decision. I understand, you're the sheriff, the tool you have-- the tool I have is this microphone, the tool you have are your officers, but help me to understand how you made that decision, that folks were going to be in those schools until the end of school.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: Here's what I know. I've been in law enforcement for coming up on 40 years from a local police officer to a federal agent. What I do know is that the presence of security, the presence of an armed officer is a deterrent. Now, there may be people out there who are suffering from mental illness who decide, "Hey, regardless of who or what is there, I'm still going to go and cause problems or wreak havoc," but at the same time, having a trained professional officer, without question, is a game-changer.
Any research that says that that's not the case I would beg to differ. What I do know is, and you know firsthand, we had a shooting that took place on campus here in Forsyth County, had not been for an SRO in the building, who knows what would've happened? Because, as you see, the reports that are coming out of Texas, there was no SRO there. An SRO, or an armed person in the building would've been a game-changer. There are so many factors that an SRO bring to a school building, not only from a physical standpoint but from a psychological standpoint.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's start with the Mount Tabor shooting, you and I were standing next to each other in the parking lot here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, watching parents distressed, trying to find out more information. I was among many media people who were there. You and many other law enforcement officers were there trying to manage that situation.
It was undoubtedly terrifying. Terrifying for the young people, for the families, for the community. Talk to me about-- I never had an opportunity to speak with the School Resource Officer who was there, how did they understand what their own role was in that experience?
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: One of the things that we talk about on a regular basis is that what the role of an SRO is in a school. In the event of a shooting or active shooter, what his or her role is, and they understand that clearly. We take an oath, the objective is to go home, but if, by fate, God orders it or ordains it like that, they know that their job is to serve and protect. If it comes down to it, that that's what they have to do, including myself. We take that oath and we take it very seriously.
The day of the Mount Tabor shooting, the call came in of shots fired in a building and we left running, going. As a matter of fact, I arrived on the scene probably eight minutes after the call came in, to be exact. No one hesitated as to going in the building, no one. You saw armed officers from all over going in the building, going to the threat, where the threat came in. The SRO, that's what he did. As soon as the shot was fired, he performed what he was supposed to do. He did exactly what he was supposed to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the clear pieces of data coming out of research around School Resource Officers is school shootings, even as horrifyingly common as they now feel, are still pretty rare. Officers who are in schools often don't have a shooter to respond to, thank goodness. What we see happening instead is officers engage with things like school fights or things that maybe, Sheriff, when you and I were kids, would've just been handled by school discipline, and now those issues are showing up in our criminal justice system.
What is your discussion with School Resource Officers about what their role and responsibility is relative to young people, and especially young people of color in our schools to keep them safe, but also to not criminalize them?
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: SROs and matching them with the proper school is a very delicate situation because all schools are not created equal. Some schools, as we have in our county, are predominantly minority Black and brown schools, some schools are just the opposite. Some schools, there's a high volume of Hispanic population. You have to literally match the school with the proper SRO.
Here's what I would tell you. As a Black man, before I was the sheriff, I was Black. Before I was a special agent, I was Black. Before I was a police officer, I was Black. I understand what it's like to be Black in America. When we started talking about Black and brown, the prison pipeline, I get it, I understand it. One of the things that we discuss here in Forsyth County is the role of SROs is not to arrest, not to handcuff. The role is to intervene when necessary, be mentors on the campus, be a part of that campus, not as an enforcer, but as a mentor.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough of Forsyth County, North Carolina. Thank you for joining us today.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough: Thank you for having this conversation. I think it's a conversation that should be had on a regular basis until we have a solution.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.