As we grapple with the tragic deaths of 17 people in a terrible mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, some conservatives are already suggesting that the best way to prevent future massacres is a massive increase in security, including more cops in schools.
Sean Hannity of Fox News opined that schools should hire former military servicemen and retired police officers to keep kids safe in class.
"Let's protect the kids," he said on his show last night, "Former military, retired military, retired police…every school should have basic fundamental security. Not like the White House necessarily, but we can secure anything we choose to secure."
Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera agreed, insisting that schools "should be at least as secure as airports."
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 15, 2018
Airports are an example of security theater run amok. Despite its heavy-handed approach to screening passengers, the Transportation Security Administration routinely fails to stop people from bringing guns and knives into the terminal: The agency missed 95 percent of the weapons in 2015's security tests. Over-the-top security measures in airports provide the illusion of safety rather than actual protection, and they come at a significant cost both in money and in civil liberties.
You wouldn't realize it from listening to Hannity, but schools have already beefed up security significantly since the 1990s. One way they've done it is by hiring "school resource officers"—law enforcement agents that work in the school. In fact, 43 percent of public schools in the U.S. have an SRO right now, up from 20 percent in 1996, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas and every other school in the district where it's located. These aren't part-time security guards or retired persons, they're the real thing: on-the-job law enforcement agents.
Fear of mass shootings was a main driver of increased demand for SROs. Between 1999—the year Columbine happened—and 2005, the federal Department of Justice gave schools $750 million to hire cops. There's scant evidence that this spending binge made schools any safer, since the school crime rate had already been trending downward (it fell by half between 1992 and 2002, consistent with the overall crime drop in the U.S. during the latter half of the 1990s).
It's tough to imagine that hiring even more officers to patrol schools would further reduce a form of crime that's already fairly rare. (As Reason's Nick Gillespie noted last night, mass shootings have not been getting more common, though they have been getting more deadly.) This is especially true when, as in Florida yesterday, the existing security measures failed so dramatically. (I don't just mean SROs. Metal detectors aren't nearly as effective as one might expect.)
Meanwhile, whatever benefits those measures bring come with ugly trade-offs. The ubiquitous presence of law enforcement in public schools has led to serious infringements of students' Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, and it has increased the likelihood that minor disputes between students will escalate into criminal justice issues. I've covered case after case of teenagers arrested on child porn charges because they swapped sexually suggestive text messages with other students—something that shouldn't even be a crime, but which often ends up in police hands because teachers and principals defer to SROs in such matters. More broadly, the increased police presence in schools is directly related to the rise of zero tolerance and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
After a high-profile crime, pundits of all political persuasions go looking for soundbite-sized solutions, from an "assault weapon" ban to a vaguely pitched overhaul of the mental health system. Beefing up school security belongs in the same category as those well-meaning but flawed fixes.