School started again this past week in Connecticut, where, in a few more towns, students headed to class under the watchful eyes of men with guns.
There was serious controversy over the guards in Enfield, where the town council decided to post retired, armed police officers in each of the public and private schools in town following the Sandy Hook massacre. A residents’ group tried and failed to bring the issue to a vote, students protested, and several Republican members of the town council broke with the mayor and the rest of the Republican majority in opposition.
“The way it is right now, I can’t go for it,” Republican town councilman Joe Bosco said at the protest in March. “Speaking for myself, if someone is that sick like [Sandy Hook shooter] Adam [Lanza], they’re going to get them when they’re in school, they’re going to get them on the school bus, they’re going to jump the curb and run them over on the playground, and you’re not going to stop it. Our kids will be in fear all the time.”
That last line interests me, because fear is at the heart of this. Will kids be “in fear” if there are armed guards? Isn’t the whole point of armed guards to respond to parents’ fears? Whose fears matter more?
The armed guards controversy is part of what led the town GOP caucus to dump Mayor Scott Kaupin, who had supported the guards, and several others off the ticket for the fall. The “Republican Strong Enfield” Facebook page, which is the campaign page of the endorsed Republican candidates for next Tuesday’s primary against Kaupin and his slate, lists “Revisit Armed Guards Program” as one of three campaign “commitments.”
Behind all the arguments about safety and violence and all of the toxic politics surrounding guns in this country is a lot of uncertainty about whether having armed guards at schools actually works. The NRA commissioned a study that claims it does, but there are plenty of saying that it doesn’t, or that it doesn’t do much. Urban schools have had police patrolling their hallways for years, because urban schools can’t pretend that violence doesn’t exist or that it will simply vanish inside the school walls. But even there, the presence of armed police isn’t always clearly connected with safer schools.
What this leaves us with is a problem without a simple solution. Should a town spend money to put guards in schools, face the possibility that they may not have the desired effect, and risk the possible negatives of having them there? Or should they not have the guards, and risk having something happen that a guard could have prevented?
I actually don’t hate the idea of guards, and I say that as a person with experience teaching in a suburban high school. There’s this stubborn idea that suburban (read: white) kids are “good” enough to not need guarding or policing, and that somehow having guards will change the school from a place of learning into something like a prison. Our kids, as Councilman Bosco said, will live in fear. I don’t buy that.
Maybe it’s something like this: installing armed guards is a way of prioritizing the reality of school security concerns, especially in a country that can’t let go of its guns, over worries about school culture, abuse of power, and attracting violence. It’s not a perfect solution, and at times it feels like the “politician’s syllogism” from the old British television show Yes, Prime Minister:
1. We must do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we must do this
Having the guards is the better of two bad choices. How we choose in those situations often says a lot about our character, and our values.
Sometimes, the something we’re considering doing is actually much worse than doing nothing. In Syria, for example, there’s a similar need to act, similar possibly-phantom fears about our own security, and another hard choice between military action and doing nothing. In that case, the administration’s military policy carries the real risks of unleashing a wider war, entangling America in another Middle East quicksand patch, and making things worse for us and the people we’re trying to help.
And so make the world safer by figuring out which bad choice is less unbearable, and sometimes failing. In the meantime, our children go school watched over by someone who, when it comes down to it, may not be able to save them.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.