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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Gun scare is argument for school guards

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Published:   |   Updated: November 8, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools MaryEllen Elia has proposed putting armed security guards in each of the county’s nearly 150 elementary schools. That’s in addition to the resource officers already on duty in the county’s high schools and middle schools.

The school board rejected the idea when it was first offered in January but agreed to study it further. The issue will come back to the board next month, and Elia’s argument for extra guards was strongly reinforced this week when a 9-year-old boy was found with a loaded gun in his backpack.

An alert school bus driver named Debra Dryden figured out what was going on and averted potential catastrophe, and for that she deserves every bit of praise that can be given. What if the child made it to school with the two-shot Derringer, though?

That question should dominate the debate as board members consider Elia’s plan. By sad coincidence, it will happen around the first anniversary of that unspeakable afternoon at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

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I’ll admit I wasn’t sold on the prospect of armed security guards in elementary schools, but things change. The idea deserves strong consideration, despite an annual cost of about $4 million. It could cost much more as the years go on, because you can’t stop a program like this once it starts.

Whatever it costs is a pittance, though, compared with the anguish it can prevent. The problem of campus violence isn’t confined to universities or high schools, and we’re not immune here.

“In light of this week, I think we’ll have to move forward with it despite some reservations,” school board member and incoming Chairwoman Carol Kurdell said. “Whenever you’re in these types of situations, you have to err on the side of caution.”

But I also think armed guards are just one step in addressing a larger problem.

Sheriff’s deputies are trying to find out what the boy was doing with a gun in the first place, but that’s not even the scariest part of this story.

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As schools are forced into more and tougher academic testing, we run the risk of producing students who are book smart but socially illiterate.

Take the example of the student in Pinellas County arrested this week for cyberbullying. You’d think that after the problem in Lakeland, where a 12-year-old girl killed herself amid allegations of relentless bullying by two other girls, it would sink in across our area that such behavior is bad.

Apparently not.

“We need more character education,” current school board Chairwoman April Griffin said. “I’ll continue to beat the drum for that. This is a very complicated matter. It really is.”

Schools can’t do it alone, and I perfectly understand if educators complain the social standards they might teach in class aren’t reinforced at home. It has to start somewhere, though. School can be the perfect place to teach students how to function properly with other people.

They also have to be as safe as we can make them.

Budgets are tight, and this is a lot of money. But this time, it was a boy with a two-shot Derringer. The next time it might be something capable of causing much more damage.

Find the money.

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