By Keith Eddings
---- — On a day when Haverhill police were riding shotgun on school buses, a proposal by the nation’s leading gun lobby to put armed cops in every school drew fire from parents, teachers, administrators and even some cops themselves, who dismissed the idea as an unaffordable knee-jerk diversion from what they said is the real issue: gun control.
The issue of guns in schools was electrified locally on Wednesday — a week after a gunman killed 26 kindergartners and staff at a Connecticut school — when someone fired BB pellets at two school buses, one carrying 3- and 4-year-olds to a Head Start program in Haverhill and another high school students. Windows shattered, but no one was injured.
Yesterday, Haverhill Superintendent of Schools James Scully said neither the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., or the blown-out windows in his own school buses convinced him that more armed cops are needed in his schools.
“At this time, people should settle down, review what’s going on and come up with a reasonable strategy,” Scully said. “But a knee-jerk reaction of putting people with guns in schools — I’m not sure that’s the right response.”
Scully said unarmed guards trained to deal with school security issues patrol Haverhill schools, but armed police officers do not.
Armed police patrol school buildings in several other Merrimack Valley school districts, including three or four assigned to the Lawrence High School complex.
John Romero, the city’s police chief, said cops in schools are a good idea because they “interact with kids and get to know them,” but he said putting one in every school is unaffordable.
“We have 22 or 23 public schools in Lawrence, not including the charter schools,” Romero said. “With our current resources, we couldn’t do it. I think you’ll get that (reaction) from any city or town.”
In a dozen or so interviews on the issue yesterday, only Evan Chaisson, a member of the Methuen School Committee, said he supported the proposal by Wayne LaPierre, the top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, to post armed policemen at every school. Armed cops patrol Methuen schools, but are not in all school buildings at once.
“It provides a security blanket for the students and parents,” Chaisson said. “If there’s a cop in every building, the visibility factor alone will deter many incidents from happening in these buildings.”
Joe Spinale, an Andover lawyer who is the parent of a 15-year-old freshman at Andover High School, acknowledged that “times have changed, things have happened,” since his own high school days three decades ago. But he said any gun in a school, even one strapped to the waist of a police officer, can be a security risk for the same reason many jails and prisons don’t arm correction officers.
“I’m not concerned about the police officer, it’s more the armed issue,” Spinale said. “Sometimes firearms go off accidentally. If anyone were to disarm the officer, now you’ve introduced a firearm into the school. A lot of things could occur that wouldn’t if you hadn’t introduced the weapon in the first place. It’s tempting to think it’s a good idea, but it gives me concern.”
“It might be too much for the kids, especially the little ones, to see them around,” said Sheila Tate, a former president of the PTO at the Oliver School in Lawrence, who has a 5-year-old grandson and a 3-year-old great-grandson in the school. “They see a police officer and some kids think they’re in trouble. They get afraid.”
Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said he has Chief Romero “on speed dial,” although he said the two don’t speak often. He said the police assigned to city school buildings allow the schools act proactively and “solve problems before they occur,” but said assigning a cop to every school would do little to solve the problems facing the city.
“The problem isn’t our schools, the problem is our streets,” McLaughlin said. “What’s on our streets? On the streets of Lawrence, there’s poverty, drug abuse, addiction, mental health issues. That’s where we need to put our resources. I’ll tell you this: we need stricter gun control laws in our country.”
Robin Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, echoed the sentiment.
“The NRA’s proposal to bring armed guards into every school in our nation is impulsive and wrongheaded,” Toner said. “We must seek sensible approaches to school safety and to ensuring that dangerous weapons such as assault rifles are strictly regulated so that there will never be another tragedy like the one that occurred in Newtown one week ago. The MTA believes that guns have no place in our schools.”
In Andover, School Committee chairwoman Paula Colby-Clements would not comment on the NRA proposal, but said each community should be allowed to craft its own solutions to gun violence rather than have a single solution imposed on thousands of schools nationwide.
“What I worry about is that sometimes, when we get nervous, we craft one-size-fits-all policies for every community,” Colby-Clements said. “That’s not always the case. The paramount concern is safety and communities are now grappling with how to adapt policies they already have, to make schools even safer.”