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School officials react to NRA call for armed guards

Updated 11:09 pm, Friday, December 21, 2012
  • Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group Code Pink, is removed from the room by security for interrupting a speech by Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, in Washington, Dec. 21, 2012. During the news conference Friday, the NRA called for armed protection for each school in the country as the best way to protect children from gun violence. Photo: BRENDAN HOFFMAN, New York Times / NYTNS
    Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group Code Pink, is removed from the room by security for interrupting a speech by Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, in Washington, Dec. 21, 2012. During the news conference Friday, the NRA called for armed protection for each school in the country as the best way to protect children from gun violence. Photo: BRENDAN HOFFMAN, New York Times

 

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The National Rifle Association's call Friday for an armed guard in every school appalls George Coleman as both a former state commissioner of education and as a grandfather whose three grandsons escaped the carnage that left 20 classmates and six teachers dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"I anticipated a more reflective response from the organization given what the country is going through," said Coleman, a longtime resident of the Sandy Hook section of Newtown. "Frankly, I think their response is very irresponsible and self-serving."

The much anticipated NRA position came from Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the nation's leading gun-rights advocacy group with more than 4 million members. It has steadfastly opposed stricter regulation of firearms.

Better to crack down on violent video games -- like one called "Kindergarten Killers" -- and a media that act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators, than demonizing lawful gun owners, said LaPierre. He said that making schools "gun-free" zones is an open invitation to "every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk."

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said LaPierre. "What if, when Adam Lanza started shooting his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday, he had been confronted by qualified, armed security?"

LaPierre said there are millions of active and retired police and military who could be deployed to protect students. He called on Congress to fund the citizens' militia and outlined a "National School Shield Program ... for every school that wants it.''

The effort, to be directed by former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark, is aimed at helping schools protect against further violence with an army of trained and armed volunteers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., meanwhile, has pledged to reintroduce an updated assault weapons ban similar to the one she sponsored in 1994, which expired in 2004. And President Barack Obama on Wednesday tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead a task force that will make policy recommendations by the end of January.

There had been speculation that with public opinion moving in the direction of more gun control, the NRA would give ground by supporting limits on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as expanding background checks of gun purchasers.

The NRA has now "made itself completely irrelevant to the national conversation about preventing gun violence, by saying that the answer to the tragedy in Newtown is to put more deadly semi-automatic assault weapons on the streets and into our schools,'' said U.S. Sen.-elect Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who represents Newtown in his waning days in the House.

Local educators, parents and others were split in their reaction to the NRA position.

Coleman, who lives three minutes away from Sandy Hook School, said he would have hoped the NRA would have spelled out more concrete, effective and assertive steps to protecting schools and the public from assault rifles -- or better yet concede they should be banned.

His wife, Carrie, was among those who spent an agonizing 45 minutes in a nearby firehouse waiting to learn the fate of their grandchildren -- a kindergartner, a second-grader and a third-grader -- and were relieved to find them unharmed. All three of his grandchildren lost friends in the shooting. But they didn't find out the identities of their friends, Coleman said, until they listened to the president speak their names Sunday night.

"I don't want my grandchildren to interact in a place where there are guns, or ask what those guns do," Coleman said.

But Ridgefield Board of Education member Austin Drukker said having a police officer in the schools could help students and parents feel more comfortable around law enforcement personnel. He said having an armed police officer at all schools might be good idea.

"There is no single answer," he said. "But this sounds like a very interesting solution. I assume any costs associated with that would have to be absorbed by the school budget."

Tammy Boyle, who has a son at Columbus School in Bridgeport, also likes the idea.

"It would be safer if the security guards were armed, as long as they are trained," said Boyle. She said she wants her son protected, period.

In Bridgeport, all schools have security guards, but only city police and school resource officers stationed in and around the high schools carry weapons.

"If I had my way, there would be a Bridgeport police officer in every school," said Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas, adding that police act as deterrents. But Vallas said the NRA position falls short of getting at the root of the problem, which he said has to include a ban on assault rifles.

In Stamford, where there are armed School Resource Officers in the high schools, Stamford Schools Superintendent Winifred Hamilton, isn't convinced that putting an armed guard in every school will prevent heinous individuals from causing harm.

"What I am sure of is that we need to be diligent each and every day in protecting our students and staff," she said. "I believe we can do that with increased security presence, effective security technology and ongoing training."

Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella said having armed officers is not a new concept in his district, either. School resource officers in the city's high school and two middle schools already carry weapons.

"Everything is on the table when it comes to protecting students," Pascarella said. In the weeks and months ahead, he said improving security measures would be at the top of everyone's agenda, along with improvements to the mental health system.

Nationwide, there are nearly 99,000 public schools. Some suggest placing armed guards in all schools is unrealistic.

The NRA "thinking shows no regard for the anticipated drastic federal cuts public education is about to experience after Jan. 2," said Jacqueline Kelleher, chairwoman of the Bridgeport Board of Education and mother of two sons at Bassick High School.

Chris Kinsley, a teacher at Blackham School in Bridgeport whose colleague, Krista Rekos, lost a daughter in the Newtown shooting, said the NRA logic makes no sense.

"Fort Hood had plenty of guns there and it didn't prevent a nut from killing innocent people," said Kinsley. He called the NRA a bunch of chest-beating Neanderthals who need to employ some common sense.

"Any hunter who hunts with either a semi- or fully automatic weapon isn't a real sportsman," Kinsley said. "They're just lousy shots."

Some worry guns in schools will invite more tragedies, not fewer.

Shaun Mitchell, a Bridgeport Central High School teacher, said he feels very safe at his school, where officers patrol, but questions the need for them to be armed.

"Who's to say that gun on the armed officer won't find its way into a student's hands?" he asked. "If they want it, they'll get it. I'd rather (have) no guns."

Others say it defies logic to think an armed guard is sufficient defense against a crazy person with an assault rifle.

"So what are you going to do, give the guards assault rifles?" asked Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, a Meriden-based parent advocacy organization. She called the NRA totally out of touch with reality.

The answer to mass shootings cannot be more guns, said Kristen Record, a physics teacher at Bunnell High School in Stratford.

"Armed security guards could not have prevented the shooting in Newtown, or any other mass shooting incident that has occurred," Record said. "Our attention needs to be focused on prevention, not reaction. We need to focus on how we, as a community, can get help for individuals with mental health issues."

Staff writer Dirk Perrefort and Dan Freedman of Hearst Newspapers contributed to this report.