by Gloria Rebecca Gomez, Arizona Mirror
April 13, 2023
Flanked by GOP lawmakers, Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne urged schools across the state to add school resource officers to their staff, calling them a critical defense in a time when the country is roiling from an unprecedented surge in mass shootings.
“I don’t want, on my watch — or anyone else’s watch, for that matter — to see somebody invade a school and shoot people…because there’s no one there to protect the students or the staff,” Horne said, during an April 12 press conference at the state Capitol in which he unveiled the results of a public opinion poll that showed parental support for SROs in schools.
The Arizona Department of Education commissioned a poll of 614 parents, the majority of them from Maricopa County, which found that 80% approved of the presence of SROs on public school grounds. That consensus, Horne said, shows that parents want a closer relationship between law enforcement officers and schools.
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“The biggest tragedy that could happen in our state is that a maniac invades a school and kills 20 kids,” he said, referencing the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. “And if parents were to find out that school could have had a school resource officer protecting kids, but didn’t do it, you can imagine how the parents would feel about that.”
The public opinion poll is part of an ongoing push by Horne to bolster the ranks of Arizona SROs, and was conducted in response to Phoenix Union High School District’s recent reconsideration of its 2020 decision not to renew an SRO agreement. The district chose not to renew the agreement partly due to the switch to remote learning and also because of a national spotlight on racial inequality in law enforcement.
Its governing board is set to discuss a potentially revised role for SROs in district schools on April 13.
In an effort to encourage schools to hire SROs, Horne’s administration launched a grant program that offers financial aid for schools to do so, dubbed the School Safety Program. Grants also fund juvenile probation officer, social worker and school counselor hires, but after Horne warned that he would refuse to recommend school counselors to the state board if a school didn’t have any SROs on staff, the program drew criticism.
At the press briefing, he doubled down on that assertion, saying that while he appreciates the importance of school counselors as students across the country grapple with mental health issues, armed officers come first.
“I think that kids should have somebody to talk to when they’re having emotional problems,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a school resource officer and a counselor or a social worker in every school, but our first priority is to protect the lives of our students.”
Lawmakers fight for SROs, school safety legislation
Senate President Warren Petersen argued that law enforcement officers are better equipped to handle imminent danger, making them a more valuable asset than counselors.
“If somebody with force comes into the school, who are you going to go stand behind to protect you?” he asked. “Do you want to go stand behind a police officer or do you want to go stand behind a counselor?”
Petersen criticized Democrats, who he said were missing the mark by advocating for more counselors when SROs are the way to protect Arizona children.
“The Republicans down here at the legislature want to make sure that our children are protected,” he said.
House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci agreed, slamming Democrats for voting against Republican bills introduced this session advertised as ensuring greater school and teacher preparedness during school shooting incidents.
“(Democrats voting no) is the part that’s disturbing and really frustrating for us up here as Republicans,” Biasiucci said. “We are looking for solutions.”
The Lake Havasu City Republican championed a measure this year that allocated $10 million for a safety pilot program that schools and teachers could opt into, which includes lessons on threat assessment, firearm safety and combat medical care. The bill was widely panned by Democrats, who criticized it as overburdening teachers when the focus should be on restricting gun access.
GOP lawmakers also introduced and unanimously backed a proposal to require schools to teach students a course on firearm safety, which drew backlash from gun violence advocates who pointed out its similarity to National Rifle Association talking points. Another bill, sent to the governor’s office on Wednesday with only Republicans in favor, would decriminalize carrying firearms on school grounds if the carrier is a parent with a concealed gun permit.
Michael-Anthony Rodriguez, a high school student from Eloy, showed up at the Capitol with social justice group Rural Arizona Action to express his disapproval of the push for more SROs. Schools need greater overall funding, especially in rural communities like his, he said, and focusing resources on such a small part of the school environment is disingenuous.
“I feel like they’re trying to put a Band-Aid on a situation instead of actually fixing what the root problem is,” he said.
Rodriguez’s school, Santa Cruz Valley High, has bathrooms in disrepair — some stalls don’t even have doors — and teachers are leaving due to low pay, including a popular teacher who commuted from Tucson but recently resigned because he could no longer afford to make the trip.
“It kind of feels like our community has always been impoverished,” he said. “And because our school lacks funding, it lacks opportunities for kids.”
Samual Kahrs noted that a majority of school shooters gain access to firearms via their families, and said adding even more guns to school campuses via SROs doesn’t help. As much as 74% of school shooters used guns obtained from parents, family members or friends. And teen access to firearms has spiked since the pandemic, with gun sale increases resulting in one-third of all homes with children under 18 now having at least one gun.
Safety is often on the 17-year-old’s mind, because many of his classmates have shared that their families keep guns at home or they themselves have one in their cars. State law allows unloaded guns to be kept in a locked car as long as they are out of sight when visiting a school campus. Lawmakers, Kahrs said, should shift their focus to address gun safety at home, where the issue often arises first.
“We shouldn’t be putting more guns into our schools,“ Kahrs said. “Legislators need to stop pushing to spend what little education money we have on resource officers and they need to spend their time making policies that restrict people’s ability to get access to these weapons of mass murder, as well as legislation that requires safety checks and gun safes.”
A Democratic proposal seeking to require gun owners to lock away their ammunition, firearms or both in a storage container when not being carried was rebuffed by the Republican-majority, which refused to give it a hearing.
***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Michael-Anthony Rodriguez as student from Yuma; he is from Eloy.
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