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December 24, 2012

Shootings should spur a look at school safety

It’s a discussion for all levels of government

INDIANAPOLIS — During a news conference last week, Gov.-elect Mike Pence deflected a question about whether arming teachers with guns might help prevent in Indiana a massacre such as the one in Newtown, Conn.

It turns out, the question was moot. Under Indiana law, if schools designate teachers as school safety officers, they already can bring guns inside their schools.

It’s a route that some Indiana policymakers — state Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, is among them — would like to see the state’s schools choose.

“I will discuss with my Senate colleagues the options schools have by Indiana Code to properly train, certify and arm qualified teachers and administrators to be actual ‘first responders’ to safeguard our children,” he said Friday.

In the wake of tragedy, it’s not hard to see why the thought is on his mind.

During my four years attending Franklin College, a local prosecutor named Lance Hamner — he’s now a Superior Court judge in Johnson County — had a part-time gig teaching a night class that I attended.

This was the year after the Virginia Tech massacre, and that horrible event came up in class one night. Hamner, who worked his way through college as a police officer, told us that he always carried a concealed weapon — and pointed to his briefcase.

As we discussed what had happened at Virginia Tech, it was hard not to wonder if somebody like Hamner had been in the right spot at the right time at that university, whether fewer than 32 lives would have been lost.

That notion, though, carried the assumption that the fight would be fair.

This year, it wasn’t fair.

Not in Aurora, Colo., where James Holmes wore a ballistic helmet, vest, leggings and more, and carried a semi-automatic rifle when he stormed into a movie theater.

Not in Newtown, where Adam Lanza wore a military-style vest and carried semi-automatic guns when he walked into an elementary school.

In a school, the best shot a teacher, who had some training and some practice at a range, could take at stopping this kind of terror would come with tremendous potential for failure and the even greater risk of leaving students without guidance that they need more than ever.

Some experts point out that if handled poorly, arming teachers could bring a whole new set of problems — such as keeping guns away from students who might want to use them to solve personal disputes — that could vastly outweigh the chances that those firearms might be useful.

Still, it’s easy to see why people like Tomes would consider the idea. This is a state senator who has also taken a deep interest in finding better ways for the state to protect children from broken homes. His heart’s in the right place. He wants to keep children safe.

For his part, Pence said he intends to ask state lawmakers to budget money for an in-depth look at the school safety measures Indiana already has in place, as well as what more can be done to keep students safe.

He said that — not gun laws — will be his focus.

“This is not about access to guns. It’s about access to schools,” Pence said.

Pence is right in saying that Newtown slayings should prompt a close look at school safety. Better yet would be a holistic look that also includes gun laws, access to mental health care and more. It’s a conversation that should take place on all levels of government.

The problem is that the solutions such a thoughtful study could produce might carry a political cost.

It could involve higher taxes — or in Indiana’s case, fewer cuts and rebates — to pay for mental health services and new layers of protection at schools.

If what’s necessary are tighter controls on certain guns or ammunition, it could involve overcoming the objections of the National Rifle Association and its many supporters, especially in Indiana.

And even so, there likely is no crystal-clear step to prevent future shootings.

“That school was not inattentive. They had taken a lot of steps and still,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said of the Newtown shootings last week. “When someone is determined to do something as monstrous as that, I don’t know exactly how much money you would have to spend and what kind of precautions you could take to ever have a fail-safe system.”

Still, getting as close to that unattainable goal is worth serious effort. Attempting it from all angles would certainly be worth the price.

Eric Bradner covers state government and politics for the Evansville Courier & Press.

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