Bullying is bad, but armed officers aren’t the answer

An armed officer is not the right person to turn to when you’re looking for help with a case of school bullying.

The point of having school resource officers — the reason parents have been asking schools to hire them — is to defend against attack by active shooters.

If there hadn’t been deadly attacks in Newtown and Parkland and other schools, no one in Warrensburg would be pushing the school board to spend money on an armed officer, and no one in Saratoga Springs would be rallying to get guns back on the hips of their school monitors.

Officers can do other things once they’re standing around in school hallways. They can chat with kids. They can listen to kids’ problems and perhaps put a word in the ear of a teacher or counselor.

But school shootings are the reason officers are present in school hallways in the first place. They are there for the terrible and unlikely circumstance when fighting back with gunfire makes sense.

A Warrensburg parent, Monique White, said earlier this week during a debate over the issue that her daughter, who is biracial, has been called racial slurs by other students. The girl reported one incident to the principal, and one of the bullies was given a day of in-school suspension.

“No, she will not go back to the principal, because she feels like you guys will do nothing. An SRO officer is Switzerland. It’s not part of the school. It’s somebody she can turn to if something like this happens,” White said at a school board meeting.

But school administrators did do something — they suspended the offending student for a day.

Even though a police officer could be a friendly ear for a student who is getting bullied, and even though talking to someone can make all the difference for a vulnerable student, officers are not there to serve as counselors, and they don’t have the training or the authority to resolve interpersonal conflicts between students.

Officers should not be getting dragged into student disciplinary issues, because their training and authority is in criminal justice. In most cases, we don’t want students charged with crimes for conflicts that play out in school.

Students need people in the school who have chosen a career of working with students and have trained for it. What a tragedy it would be if students with mental health issues came to harm because they had no one to help them, in districts that had spent money on armed officers instead.

Many, many more teens die from suicide — about 4,600 a year — than are shot to death by people attacking schools. Last year was the worst ever for school shootings, and 30 students were killed.

Suicide and school shootings are not separate issues. Frequently, a school shooting is the sensational way disturbed young men have chosen to carry out their suicides. Concentrating on students’ mental health — identifying those who could be veering into dangerous behavior, having counselors speak with them and their families and even with police, if that is called for — can stop shootings before they happen.

This debate isn’t about student bullying of the sort the White family has endured. Warrensburg and every other district needs to address bullying head-on, as a regular part of the curriculum and an inherent aspect of the school environment.

No one can know if another school shooting will occur, or where. But the key questions are whether we want to create an environment of fear in our schools — is that justified? — and whether paying armed officers is the best use of the few dollars we have for public education. I sent kids through the Glens Falls school system, and of all the things I would have liked to see the district spending more money on, armed officers never made the list.

Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star newspaper in Glens Falls.