As the National Rifle Association calls for armed volunteer guards in schools, safety experts say there's a huge difference between a trained law enforcement officer, and a guard with a gun.
WASHINGTON — The top U.S. gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, wants trained, armed volunteers protecting every school in America as a response to this month's Connecticut school shooting.
But school safety experts say there's a huge difference between a trained law enforcement officer who becomes part of the school family — and a guard with a gun.
The issues of gun violence and gun control are once again national issues after the Connecticut shooting, where 20 children ages 6 and 7 were shot multiple times with a high-powered rifle, sometimes at close range. President Barack Obama has promised to present a plan in January to confront what has long been a national problem.
Officer Rich Agundez experienced that problem firsthand when a student armed with a shotgun attacked a California school where Agundez was assigned.
While two teachers and three students were injured in the 2001 attack, Agundez confronted the gunman and wounded him before he could get inside the school and use his second weapon, a handgun.
Agundez said what happened before the shooting at his San Diego County school should frame the debate over the NRA's proposal. Agundez had trained the staff in how to lock down the school, assigned evacuation points, instructed teachers to lock doors, close curtains and turn off the lights.
A former SWAT team member, Agundez' preparation placed him in simulated stressful situations and taught him to evade a shooter's bullets. The kids in the school knew to follow his advice because they knew him. He spoke in their classrooms and counseled them when they came to him with problems.
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School security officers can range from the best-trained police officers to unarmed private guards. Some big city districts with gang problems and crime formed their own police agencies years ago. Others, after the murder of 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, started joint agreements with local police departments to have officers assigned to schools — even though that was no guarantee of preventing violence. A trained police officer at Columbine confronted one of two shooters but couldn't prevent the killings.
"Our association would be uncomfortable with volunteers," said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers — whose members are mostly trained law enforcement officers who "become part of the school family.'"
Canady questioned how police officers responding to reports of a shooter would know whether the person with a gun is a volunteer or the assailant.
Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who will head the NRA effort, said the program will have two key elements.
One is a model security plan "based on the latest, most up-to-date technical information from the foremost experts in their fields." Each school could adapt the plan to its own circumstances, and "armed, trained, qualified school security personnel will be but one element."
The second element may be more controversial because, to avoid massive funding for local authorities, it would use volunteers. Hutchinson said retired police officers, former members of the military or rescue personnel would be among those likely to volunteer.
There's even debate over whether anyone should have a gun in a school, even a trained law enforcement officer.
"In general, teachers don't want guns in schools, period," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, one of the two large unions representing teachers. Most teachers, he said, do not want to be armed themselves.
"It's a school. It's not a place where guns should be," he said.
The security situation around the U.S. is mixed.
—The Snohomish School District north of Seattle got rid of its school officers because of the expense.
—The Las Vegas-based Clark County School District has its own police department and places armed officers in and around its 49 high school campuses. Officers patrol outside elementary and middle schools.
—For the last five years, an armed police officer has worked in each of the two high schools and three middle schools in Champaign, Illinois. Board of Education member Kristine Chalifoux said there are no plans to increase security, saying, "I don't want our country to become an armed police state."
—A Utah group is offering free concealed-weapons permit training for teachers. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne proposed a plan to allow one educator in each school to carry a gun.
Ed Massey, president of the National School Boards Association, said his district in Kentucky has nine trained law enforcement officers for 23 schools and "would love to have one in every school."
"They bring a sense of security and have done tremendous work in deterring problems in school," he said. "The number of expulsions have dramatically decreased. We used to have 15 or 20 a year. Now we have one or two in the last three years."
An officer, he said, "is not just a hired gun. They have an office in the school. They are trained in crisis management, handling mass casualties and medical emergencies."
Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, said having trained officers in schools is "more of a prevention program than a reactive program if you have the right officers who want to work with kids."
But he also criticized a drop in funding for school security, saying, "Congress and the last two administrations have chipped away to the point of elimination of every program for school security and emergency planning."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Michael Tarm, Greg Moore, Ken Ritter, Sandra Chereb and Donna Blankinship contributed to this report.