By RORY SCHULER
He can imagine what it would be like hiding in a classroom as gunshots echo through school hallways.
“I’m in a classroom and I hear a guy walking down the corridor and he’s shooting … What do I want between me and him?” asked grandfather and retired Warwick Police Capt. Tim Colgan. “I don’t want a social worker; I don’t want a psychiatrist; I don’t want the principal. I want a cop between me and him. And I think most people feel that way. I think they do.”
If you’re an American, this is an issue you’ve spent some time pondering.
How do we stop mass shootings in schools? How do we keep our children safe and alive through the school day, so they all come home?
About a month ago, Colgan founded an organization called School Safety Now, which proposes a solution to the nation’s school shooting epidemic.
The group’s membership ranks have swollen past 500, and Colgan says people are starting to pay attention to and work toward achieving their mission statement: “Ensure a law enforcement officer at our elementary and secondary schools so our staff can teach, and our children can learn without fear for their safety.”
How many officers would be required to patrol all of the Ocean State’s schools? How much would it cost? Would Rhode Island be able to recruit, train and sustain that many armed officers in perpetuity?
A very rough estimate, considering around 400 public and private schools in the state, around 180 days per year, at a rate of around $43 per hour (average pay for a Warwick police officer), Colgan estimates staffing every school in Rhode Island with an armed officer could cost as much as $24 million.
“Obviously this rate could be much less,” Colgan said. “I feel safe saying cost would be about 24 million at prevailing rate.”
The details have yet to be worked out, but the proposal has already piqued the interest of local law enforcement, education and municipal leaders.
In reference to “cost, manpower issues,” etc., Colgan argues the “same obstacles existed with TSA and court officers protecting federal judges.”
“If the desire to protect our kids is there, these are easily overcome,” he said. “$23 million and steady implementation is better than just waiting for it to happen.”
“Increased visibility or presence of a police officer at a school is a strong deterrent to anyone considering harming students or staff,” said Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael J. Winquist. “In active shooter situations, reduced response times of trained and well-equipped police officers neutralizing a threat correlate to lives being saved. Minutes and even seconds count! That is why I conceptually support School Safety Now’s mission.”
While Winquist supports the mission, major obstacles stand in the way.
“Hiring and training enough Officers and finding the funding to post a police officer at every school across the state is a high hurdle that would take several years to achieve,” Winquist explained. “A more viable approach in the short term is to provide each municipality funding to add additional school resource officers to their school districts in consultation with their respective school superintendents.”
Cranston Mayor Kenneth J. Hopkins praised the police department’s relationship with the city’s public schools. Mayor Frank Picozzi questioned how enough officers could be recruited when Warwick is having difficulty filling its ranks. Even with the state taking on the responsibility of hiring officers and paying for such a program, Picozzi said he would like to see the details and get feedback from parents and teachers before endorsing the concept.
“Our school resource officers already do a fantastic job,” Hopkins said on Monday, raising doubts Colgan’s goal is achievable, due to current recruiting and staffing shortages.
“We would need more than 20 new officers (in Cranston alone),” Hopkins said. “It may not be feasible. There is already a shortage.”
Some towns are already beefing up school security. Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. recently proposed doubling the town’s police presence at Johnston High School.
“I support any initiative to put more police officers in schools,” Polisena Jr. said earlier this week. “In fact, last month I directed the police department to put a second School Resource Officer in the high school. That second SRO will be starting May 12 and remain there permanently. In addition to providing more security, it also gives the kids a chance to build relationships with officers and departments.”
Colgan argues that when certain sectors of society are deemed vulnerable, they’re typically protected. He asks why we don’t protect schools the way we protect airports and sporting events.
“You go to the airport to take your kid to Disney, there’s armed officers there,” he said. “You go to a Taylor Swift concert, there’s armed officers there. You go to the Boston Marathon, there’s armed officers there. You go to a high school football game, there’s an armed officer walking in the crowd … Unfortunately, we live in a world where that is what is required. There’s no doubt about it. If we do it for the courthouses; we do it for the State House; we do it for the airports …”
Then perhaps we should provide the same protection for our children, while they’re in school.
“The only way that I can think of, and most people can think of, is put a cop in the school; whose job is to protect the kids,” Colgan explained. “When you think about it, airports were a target, we put cops there. Governor feels like the State House and the courts are a target, we put cops there. Gillette Stadium has a football game, they’re afraid it might be a target, we put cops there. Well guess what, schools are a target now too.”
American debates over gun control and the Second Amendment have been raging since the nation’s inception. School Safety Now hopes to stay above the current argumentative atmosphere and reach people on both sides of the political spectrum.
Following the March 27 shooting at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, Colgan had enough. He felt compelled to act in some way.
“We just started about four weeks ago … after the Tennessee shooting,” Colgan recalled. “We said, ‘Enough is enough; what can we do to protect our kids?’ … Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Progressives, Conservatives … are all welcome and all part of the group, because we’re not arguing over the Second Amendment. We’re not arguing over what type of weapons to ban; what not to ban; the right to defend.”
Adding a shooter to the mix changes the entire school safety equation. The main advantage to having an armed officer in every school would be the elimination of response time. The officer would already be on the scene.
Colgan has been working with several state legislators, hoping to help draft and introduce supportive legislation.
“Although we support in principle the legislation that retired Warwick Police Captain Tim Colgan and School Safety Now are advocating for, the funding for and the training of school-based officers are a critical piece of any plan that would be put in place,” wrote the Cranston Public Schools Leadership Team. “These officers would not only need to be trained in responding to school shootings, but would also need to be trained as our SROs are, as a police officer working in a school setting, and working alongside our students and our staff in our school communities. Being a partner in our school communities is very important to us.”
Law enforcement and education leaders in Johnston, Cranston and Warwick all seem to concur with School Safety Now’s goals, but they also each acknowledge the apparent challenges standing in the way.
“The Warwick Police Department would be in support of this idea in theory,” said Warwick Police Deputy Chief Commander Michael Lima. “We recognize there would be many challenges to getting this proposal off the ground, including staffing issues, fiscal issues, etc. However, we welcome the opportunity to have an open discussion on ways to continue to keep our schools safe.”
Anyone interested in joining the effort can sign School Safety Now’s online petition (schoolsafetynow.com).
Shelter in Place
Ask a modern school-age student about the regular safety drills they experience at school.
If you’re old enough, you may remember drills meant to prepare for an incoming nuclear bomb. In many sectors of the nation, school students are taught to hide in doorways and under desks during tornado drills. And every kid has been hurried outside during a routine fire drill.
Nationwide, over the past two decades, however, youngsters have been drilling to prepare for a previously nonexistent threat: the armed assailant.
“Columbine was 24 years ago,” Colgan recalled. “When I think about it, I go, ‘Oh my God, that’s a long time.’ And really what’s changed? Other than people being so divisive and polarized … How can we protect our kids in the meantime? … Let’s put a cop there whose job is to protect the school. And that’s really what this group wants to do. We don’t want to judge anyone on their issues of gun control; let those fights continue.”
Colgan sat back in his chair and picked up a small cardboard sign bearing the name of his organization in bright red letters with a short message, “Law enforcement officers in all our schools!”
“Do you know what drives me nuts?” Colgan asked. “They have this thing … shelter in place. So it sounds good, and I don’t know if I want this in the story … it’s something personal. I go, ‘What is that?’ You know what it is? It’s hiding in your room and waiting for something to happen. That’s what ‘shelter in place’ is.”
Colgan argues that an armed officer should be nearby if the kids you love are ever forced to shelter in place. He’s tired of waiting for something to happen.