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Armed Guards a Familiar Fixture in San Bernardino Schools

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White House may consider funding for police in schools after Newtown

Chris Levister

The early morning shooting on January 10 at Taft Union High School, near Bakersfield, is just the latest attack to occur at a school in the U.S. In December, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with an assault rifle, killed 20 elementary school children and seven adults, including his mother, in Newtown, Connecticut—one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

San Bernardino City Unified School District Board member Danny Tillman says despite catastrophic cuts to the city’s school budget, keeping schools safe remains a priority. In fact he says the district in 2012 set aside a million dollars from its General Fund to pay for armed security on it campuses.

“Armed security in our schools is something we’ve had for many years.” Tillman says prior to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting tragedy, district officials facing more cuts during January-February 2012 budget negotiations refused to alter funding for school security. He says after years of shrinking school district budgets any sort of security is expensive but necessary.

“Securing our schools is priority one. We were adamant then and remain committed to funding security guards and police officers on our campuses because we share the common belief that keeping our children safe must rise above politics and the prevailing controversy over gun control,” said Tillman.

Tillman says school board members intend to hold the line on funding for security even in light of the city of San Bernardino’s bankruptcy.

“Those duties are actually supposed to be carried out by city police. We recognize San Bernardino’s economic problems but we’ve chosen to take a million dollars from our General Fund to maintain armed security on our campuses.”

San Bernardino city Police Chief Rob Handy said his department wouldn’t be able to afford to assist the San Bernardino school district’s police force by placing officers at all campuses. “We’re barely able to handle our basic needs now,” he said.

Following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, SBCUSD decided to bolster its security when students returned to school this week.

"We actually put in a layer of extra funds," Tillman said. "So they're out and remaining vigilant."

Most Inland high schools have armed police officers from their cities or counties assigned to their campus. Some of those police, known as school resource officers, are also responsible for the feeder middle and elementary schools. But few lower-level schools have full-time officers.

A number of public school districts in Southern California have their own police departments, including Baldwin Park Unified, Fontana Unified, Hesperia Unified, Inglewood Unified, Montebello Unified, San Bernardino City Unified and San Diego Unified. Many more contract with local law enforcement agencies for Special Resource Officers (SROs), who are assigned to patrol the district by their department.

Mango Elementary School, in Fontana Unified, doesn't have a police officer on campus all day long - the district's officers typically shift to the secondary schools during the school day - staff and parents are mixed about whether the school needs it. About a third of public schools nationwide have armed guards on campus, those who do not say they worry that allowing police officers with guns in schools would be far more destructive to the day-to-day culture of schools than any benefit they might bring in protecting against the worst-case scenario.

Weighing in on the debate surrounding guns Tillman says he personally supports an Obama administration effort to limit multiple ammunition clips.

“While I think it’s important to teach young people to respect each other, as well as the community and society they live in, there’s only so much you can do to prevent a mentally unstable person with a 30 round clip from preying on innocent school children,” he said.

“You shouldn’t be able to go on the Internet a buy a 30 round clip for the purposes of hunting or shooting practice. Most gun owners are responsible. I support their right under the Second Amendment, that said, we must have a serious discussion about the millions of firearms that fall into the hands of the wrong people and end up causing tragedies like Sandy Hook,” Tillman said, “Bottom line we have to do something. Doing nothing is not an option.”

The Obama administration is considering funding many more police officers in public schools to secure campuses, a leading Democratic senator said, part of a broad gun violence agenda that is likely to include a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips and universal background checks.

The school safety initiative, one of several under consideration, would make federal dollars available to schools that want to hire police officers and install surveillance equipment, although it is not nearly as far-ranging as the National Rifle Association’s proposal for armed guards in every U.S. school.

The idea is gaining currency among some Democratic lawmakers, who see it as a potential area of common ground with Republicans who otherwise oppose stricter restrictions on firearms. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat from California, said she presented the plan to Vice President Biden and that he was “very, very interested” and may include it in the policy recommendations he makes to President Obama.

“If a school district wants to have a community policing presence, I think it’s very important they have it,” Boxer said. “If they want uniformed officers, they can do it. If they want plain-clothed officers, they can do it.”

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