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Armed Police Now Tolerated, Even Welcomed on School Campuses

Safety: Once they would have been shunned, but violence has convinced former critics they are needed.


EL CAJON, Calif. — Amid the blackboards and the basketball hoops at Granite Hills High School and neighboring Santana High students see the same incongruous sight: cops with guns.

The two suburban San Diego County campuses are the rule, not the exception. Schools nationwide are arming themselves to protect against their own. Parents and students who once would have winced at the notion are now willing--even eager--to welcome well-armed officers on campus.

"We need cops everywhere," said Eleanore Cobble, a 10th-grader at Granite Hills. "I don't feel safe anymore."

Thursday's shooting at Granite Hills High, following a fatal shooting at Santana High on March 5, is expected only to intensify the call for tighter school security, experts say.

It was an El Cajon police officer, assigned full time to the campus, who stopped Jason Hoffman only moments after the 18-year-old allegedly wounded five students and teachers with a shotgun. Officer Rich Agundez Jr. scrambled out of the administration building and confronted Hoffman outside the school, shooting him in the face and buttocks.

School officials widely credit Agundez's swift response for minimizing the potential carnage.

Authorities said Friday that they believe Hoffman was gunning for a vice principal and reported that the teenager four years ago was ordered to undergo anger management classes after an assault conviction.

Often controversial and increasingly popular, armed officers are finding their way onto campuses coast to coast.

The school districts in Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, Chicago and Miami all have their own police departments. Smaller school systems that can't afford forces of their own often contract with local police agencies for officers or hire armed security guards.

"The armed officer is becoming the norm," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village. "I think this is one of the messages that should go out to perpetrators of school crime. Schools are demonstrating the same [willingness] to use firepower that the shooters are using."

The federal government has taken a leading role in encouraging closer relationships between schools and police. The U.S. Department of Justice doles out millions of dollars each year to bring armed police officers onto campuses. More than 4,000 of these officers now work at schools across the country, including 270 in California. Many of them also serve as mentors and counselors, and some even teach.

Ask the officers about their role and they uniformly offer the same response: They deter crime.

"They know every faculty member, they have a rapport with students, they understand the tenor of the campus," said Wesley Mitchell, chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District's police department, which assigns an armed officer to each of its 49 high schools and most of its middle schools.

"They are more effective at being at the right place at the right time and preventing things," Mitchell said.

That's precisely what the students and parents of Granite Hills High want. And that's what they are getting. In the wake of Thursday's shooting, Granite Hills and Santana, along with other Grossmont Union High School District campuses, have each added second full-time police officers, at least temporarily.

"It would make them feel safer knowing that [a gunman] could not come into the school and blow anyone's head off," said Granite Hills parent Joycee Bernstein-Mahoney, who also favors the introduction of metal detectors.

But not everyone is convinced that a police presence is the answer.

Some parents in El Cajon believe that the schools must do more to help youngsters before they boil over.

"There are an awful lot of kids who are alienated and angry," said Donna Law, whose son Brendan is a ninth-grader at Granite Hills. "I'm not sure the school has the resources to deal with them."

Experts on school violence also bemoan the growing reliance on law enforcement, saying police on campus may send the wrong message to students who are emotionally troubled or bent on mayhem. Others say that security--whether armed guards, cameras or metal detectors--is useless against an armed and determined assailant. And recent studies suggest that, despite high-profile shootings, campus violence has declined over the last decade.

Adding police everywhere is "just not cost-effective," said Irwin A. Hyman, a professor of school psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of "Dangerous Schools."

In Hyman's view, resources spent on police presence at schools would be better spent on anti-bullying and other prevention programs. Policymakers should keep in mind, Hyman noted, that "the chance of a kid's getting shot in school is infinitesimal."

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