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Officers Know Firing a Gun in a School Is Risky, But Sometimes Necessary

School resource officers try to build relationships with students to prevent school shootings

Being an armed officer in a school is a difficult job that requires being ready to kill a student, an official from a national organization for school-based law enforcement officers said Tuesday.

Mac Hardy, interviewed hours after a teenage gunman shot a girl in a Maryland school before dying following a confrontation with a school resource officer, said an officer might have to fire on someone he or she knows through encounters at the school.

“You have to do it with the intention to save lives, and sometimes that’s by taking a life,” said Hardy, director of operations of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

In the latest school shooting, a teenager armed with a handgun shot and critically wounded a girl inside Great Mills High School. A school resource officer, Deputy Blaine Gaskill of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, confronted the gunman in less than a minute and shot at him.

The suspect, identified as 17-year-old Austin Rollins, was killed though authorities did not provide details. A 14-year-old boy was wounded but it was unclear how.

Rollins and the girl had a prior relationship but authorities did not say whether that was the motive.

St. Mary’s County Public Schools Superintendent James Scott Smith said the school resource officer did his job exactly the right way, but “we still have tragic loss of life, we still have somebody in critical condition.”

Gaskill, a deputy for about six years who has SWAT training, has been assigned to that school as its sole officer since August.

“This is a tough guy,” Gov. Larry Hogan said. “While it’s still tragic, he may have saved other people’s lives.”

Hardy’s group recommends against arming teachers as President Donald Trump proposed following last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed by a former student.

Many experts in gun violence and school safety immediately called the idea a bad one. Hardy said teachers should be allowed to teach without having to take on the responsibility of carrying a weapon and possibly having to kill a student.

The National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Alabama, notes that law enforcement officers practice frequently under simulated high-stress conditions. Firing in a school is extremely risky, with the chance that innocent students or staff could be wounded or killed. Officers firing at a range have an accuracy of about 75 percent with a handgun, while in a real shooting, that drops to 17 percent, Hardy said.

“I can’t just fire randomly,” he said. “I’ve got to know what’s behind my target. What’s this round going to do if I miss? Who is it going to strike?”

“I have to live with that if an innocent student is struck by my round,” he said.

However, because some states already permit teachers to carry arms, the group also offers recommendations for arming teachers, from requiring psychological testing to ensure they are capable to providing instructions on storing their firearms and keeping control of them during a fight. Armed teachers should always take a defensive not offensive posture, he said.

The group trains school resource officers and though there is no formal count, it estimated for a National Public Radio interview earlier this month that there were between 14,000 and 20,000 officers in about 30 percent of the country’s schools. 

About 300 officers were assigned to schools in Maryland as of last year, according to the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers. 

Hardy, who retired last year after 18 years in the schools in Hoover, describes the job as being a combination of law enforcement officer, informal counselor and classroom guest speaker. The goal is to break down barriers between law enforcement and students, and build relationships so that students can feel free to share problems or concerns. School resource officers have to like kids, and have empathy towards those who are struggling and for whom school is a safe place, Hardy said.

“We can’t even imagine sometimes what these kids are going through when they leave the school,” he said.

He recalled the shocked parents of a student who had posted a photo of what appeared to be a real gun on social media. It turned out to be an airsoft gun, a realistic replica used in sports, but the parents were at first disbelieving, he said. In another case, a student had made threats to kill other students but lacked an access to guns, he said.

After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, law enforcement officers changed tactics for confronting an active shooter. Previously they would set up a secure perimeter and move methodically, while now they try to stop the shooter as quickly as possible.

Since the Columbine shooting, the number of school resource officers has increased, though not every organization supports the expansion. There is no evidence that their presence means safer schools, Marc Schindler, the head of the Justice Policy Institute, told NPR’s “All Things Considered” on March 8. He said that research shows that it also results in higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and arrests, especially for students of color.

“In fact, the data really shows otherwise — that this is largely a failed approach in devoting a significant amount of resources but not getting the outcome in school safety that we are all looking for,” he told NPR.

While the deputy in Tuesday’s shooting is being praised for his quick response, the school resource officer in Parkland is accused of staying outside the building where the shooting was taking place. Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Scot Peterson did recommend that the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, be committed involuntarily for a mental evaluation, but there is no evidence that he was, according to The Associated Press. Peterson has since resigned.

Since the Parkland shooting, the survivors have been taking on the National Rifle Association and are demanding changes from politicians, with some unprecedented success. They are planning marches in Washington, D.C., and across the country on Saturday to demand that their lives become a priority and mass shootings are ended. They are calling them March for Our Lives.

In Maryland on Tuesday, Sheriff Tim Cameron told NBC Washington that despite the fast response of the school resource officer, two students were still shot.

“You train to respond to this and you hope that you never ever have to,” he said. “This is the realization of your worst nightmare — that, in a school, that our children could be attacked. And so as quickly … as that (school resource officer) responded and engaged, there’s grievous injuries to two students.”

This story contains material from the Associated Press.

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