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Q & A

A School Security Expert on Why Giving Guards AR-15s Isn’t the Best Way to Protect Students

A Colorado district bought 10 military-style guns. They would be better off focusing on “environmental design,” John White says.

A Colorado school district is arming up. Beginning in May, 10 authorized security officers in Douglas County will have access to Bushmaster AR-15 rifles at school — though they must leave the high-powered weapons locked in patrol cars when on duty.

The plan was put forward by Richard Payne, the head of security for the district, and approved by the superintendent. Payne’s rationale, according to news reports: He thought his officers should have the same kind of weapons as the police officers with whom they occasionally train. He bought the weapons, which cost $12,300, without first asking for permission from the district.

Officers must undergo 20 hours of training before they can have the assault rifles in their possession. Many already carry handguns.

But many outside security experts say that the most effective tool for protecting schools is not high-caliber weapons, but taking basic steps like closely controlling entrances and exits. The Trace spoke with John White, CEO of Protection Management, a security consulting firm that advises schools on preparing for active shooter scenarios, arming security guards, and what the best safeguards are for such places.

What questions would you have for a school that wants to arm its security guards with assault rifles?

White: First, when you’re going to bring in a tool like an assault rifle, there has to be a justification. What historical information justifies bringing that in? What’s the rationale? Does it address a need? It’s different from bringing in lower levels of force like pepper spray or batons.

How does the conversation about bringing in guns usually go?

I’ve had clients that say, at the beginning of working together, “I’m thinking about arming security.” And I respond that they should think about everything else they could do to increase their security, because the majority of the time, there are things you can do to enhance security before you bring guns onto the property.

Lots of these effective measures are pretty subtle, so they may not get security officers excited. But if you’re not having an unbiased risk assessment conducted by someone from outside, you may be increasing your liability. People within an organization may advocate policies because they would benefit their department; or they may push for measures that don’t match up with with their capabilities and training.

What kind of things do you suggest before arming guards?

There are things you can do to your environment to try to reduce the risk of crimes or incidents from happening. Schools used to be wide open, but many have taken steps to secure their buildings. More and more are following a set of principles known as crime prevention through environmental design.

In that approach, you reduce the opportunity for crime or risk by making it difficult for an intruder or assailant to get inside the building. You want to show to any assailant that this is a “hard target.” They’re looking for “soft” targets. You make sure doors stay locked and close some entrances altogether. You put up glass partitions. These architectural features “harden” a building to deter an attack from taking place in the first place.

Take the example of lighting. Improved lighting will deter people from committing crimes on your property at night. Intruders don’t like it when flood lights come on.

Wouldn’t the presence of guns like AR-15s make a school a hard target and deter an attack?

There’s deterrence, and there’s defense. Guns provide defense, not deterrence. They don’t make a facility any more secure. When you’re looking for a target for a crime, you don’t ever know if there’s a gun in a facility. But you can see that if a door is unlocked or window is open, it’s a soft target.

Have you ever advised a school to arm itself like the Douglas County School District did?

No. It would only be in the extreme cases where I would ever make a recommendation to arm security officers on staff. There’s so much that has to go into that process.

For instance, how do you store the guns? They allow you to defend against an attack, but how will they be accessed when they’re locked away? And when they don’t need to be accessed, can they be secured?

Do you think Douglas County’s security officers would at least be able to perform that defense?

They’ll complete 20 hours of training — but law enforcement trains constantly with their weapons. And how will they deploy them should a dangerous situation arise? They’ll have to run to their cars.

Is the expectation that they’ll engage an active shooter? It’s not easy to respond to an active shooter. Will they be trained to judge when to shoot and when not to? It’s more complicated than running in and gunning down the shooter. When a police officer on patrol or a SWAT team comes in, they’re not just going to shoot to kill. If a suspect is contained, the ideal situation is to get him to surrender, and that can take hours. If the person’s not shooting anymore, there’s no justification for opening fire. The goal is to contain and control, to bring it to a peaceful, nonfatal ending if at all possible.

Do you think Douglas County’s decision to give guards assault rifles is the beginning of a trend?

This school district is going to be closely watched. But I can’t see a lot of others going to that extent. Facilities like schools, medical buildings, government offices — there’s just so much they can do, security-wise, before it gets to the level of buying AR-15s. I’d be surprised if this became the norm. I’d be disappointed if it became the norm.

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