Preventing “active shooter” situations in schools is considered impossible, because it is a problem which has been around since before the United States was a nation. Understanding the dynamic of what occurs on a school campus from a law enforcement perspective is much newer.
And, that is where the concept of the school resource officer has become part of a prevention philosophy that centers around the students themselves.
“It is a larger society problem,” Hope Police Chief J. R. Wilson said. “It involves bullying; I think that is a big issue of major interest. Anything that makes a person feel less connected to a group, or someone pushed away from a group, I think that is a likely outcome.
“Mental illness is another issue; identifying kids who need help and assistance with some incapacity or mental illness and helping them integrate into society is important,” he said. “This is something that we are never going to be able to prevent 100 percent. But, we have to be prepared and work as hard as we can mitigate this.”
The most recent school shooting incident in Southwest Arkansas occurred in 1997 in Lafayette County at Stamps High School, when Joseph Colt Todd lay in a sniper nest just off the campus and used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot LaTishia Finley, 16, and Grover Henderson, Jr., 17, once each in the hip.
Todd was 14-years old at the time. He was subsequently arrested and convicted in Lafayette County Circuit Court of two counts of first degree battery and sentenced to two concurrent five year prison sentences, with two and a half years of each suspended.
He testified at trial that he had been bullied.
“I was really angry at what was going on, picking on me,” Todd told the jury at his sentencing hearing. “I really didn't want to go back to school... I figured the best way to not go back to school was to shoot someone.”
Wilson said research shows that the incidence of school shootings is nothing new.
“I was looking back at some cases; in the 1700s there was a school shooting case, in the 1800s, and early 1900s,” he said. “One was in 1764, in Pennsylvania, where some Lenape warriors shot a teacher outside a classroom. Another in 1890, in South Carolina, where someone was shot at a school. In 1853, in Kentucky, a student was shot; 1891 in New York, 1946 in Brooklyn. This is not a new phenomenon.”
A particular difference today is the high-capacity nature of the firearms which are available, Wilson said.
“I was looking at one case some time ago, where someone was shot at a school and the shooter didn't have time to reload before people were able to subdue him,” he said. “So, the amount of damage one was able to do at that time was not as great.”
Page 2 of 2 - The development of the school resource officer as an outreach to public school students is not entirely designed to act as a deterrent to school violence, Wilson said.
“The concept of the school resource officer as it has been developed nationally has a three-pronged approach to the job,” he said. “They act as a law enforcement officer; but, two they act as a teacher with courses for the students, whether it's DARE or they develop their own course; and, the third thing is to be an advisor-mentor.”
Most of the emphasis is placed on the teaching/mentor aspects of the relationship.
“We want them to see who we really are,” Wilson said. “A child may have misconceptions because they see a police officer in their home for five minutes arresting their mother or father; so, we want them to police officers in a larger perspective.”
Stationing armed police officers on every campus in Arkansas is essentially a local decision.
“Every school district is an entity to itself,” Wilson said. “They control their own property, much like a private business, but they also have laws to follow that are set by the state legislature. They have a mission and a job to do; they control their facilities, and I think, across the nation, they do a good job.”
Funding and the dynamics of a police presence are key problems which have been tailored locally to the mission of the City's officer on the Hope High School campus and the County's DARE program.
“About five years ago, the school board, the city board and police department all hashed out our problems on the resource officer,” Wilson said. “After that time, we have worked out those issues and are kind of on the same page.”
Funding remains a problem, as demonstrated by the reduction in the number of resource officers from time to time based upon the availability of federal and state grant funds.
“It's all tax funding,” Wilson said. “There are so many things everybody wants to do; and, the question was how to best allocate our resources.”
Ultimately, how an on-site resource officer is used depends upon mutual policies established by schools and law enforcement that determine how an officer operates while on campus, but within the confines of the duties of a sworn officer of the state.
“We have a good understanding of the law, where it requires us to take a child into custody and all of that,” Wilson said. “I think all of us would like to see it expanded, but funding is an issue.”
The advantage for Hope is response capability, he said.
“Even if we were there, could these kinds of things still happen? The answer is 'yes,'” Wilson said. “There are people who attack police when the officer is right there. But, ultimately, I think a law enforcement presence is a good thing, and I think our community thinks it's a good thing.”