Holy smokin’guns in schools

School cops wanna pack heat

Mike Mieras says school cops need to be armed.<br>

Mike Mieras says school cops need to be armed.

Photo By Debra Reid

Parents, students and education experts can only shake their heads and wonder why. Why now, with no real rise in school violence, have Washoe County’s school cops renewed their plea to arm all of their 28 officers?

“I don’t think kids should have to walk down the hall next to armed officers. It just rubs me the wrong way,” said Sara Zaidi, 18, a recent Reed High graduate. “I just think it’s not an issue.”

Zaidi said she’s never seen the kind of violence in the Washoe County schools that would necessitate arming the school police officers.

Nevada Parent-Teachers Association President Barbara Clark questioned whether there has been an increase in violence in the Washoe County School District that justifies the weapons. She fears the measure would interfere with the special relationship between student and school officer.

“School police are a resource for youngsters to go to, someone to make them feel safe and help address their problems,” Clark said. “Once you arm the officers, how are you going to renew that trust?”

School Police Chief Mike Mieras acknowledged that there’s been no real increase in school violence over the past few years. In trying to arm his officers, he argued that he is being proactive instead of reactive. He simply wants to enhance school police officers’ ability to do their jobs.

Besides, everyone else is doing it.

Mieras cited the San Bernardino City Unified School District in California, which boasts 63,000 students who’ve enjoyed the presence of armed school cops for the last 20 years.

“It’s a prevention thing,” Mieras said.

The issue has been debated for at least a decade. These days, six school police officers carry guns. The school police would like to see all 28 officers packing. School cops, represented by Mieras, renewed their plea for more guns at a Washoe County School District board meeting on June 24.

Six guns are no longer enough to govern and protect a district of 59,000 students and 7,000 faculty members, Mieras said.

“The stuff we deal with these days is really no different than any city, police or sheriff department nationwide,” Mieras said.

The change would be costly.

Mieras said that an initial one-time-only fee would range from $20,000 to $40,000, depending on whether the officers pay for their own guns. There would also be a yearly cost of about $20,000 for liability insurance. (Needed to cover the lawsuit that might occur if, say, someone accidentally gets shot.)

The trustees instructed Mieras to come back with more details before the issue could become an action item on the school trustees’ agenda.

Trustees were critical of the additional cost and liability to the district. A few trustees shared their fears about public schools.

“In my school years, there was never a Columbine,” said Trustee Lezlie Porter. “It’s just not the high schools of the 1960s and 1970s anymore. It’s the 21st century.”

Porter said that, ever since she first started working for the school district 10 years ago, she has been a proponent of arming the officers. She said what mainly necessitates a change is that kids are bringing guns to schools now. She and other trustees cited one such incident at Vaughn Middle School two years ago when a student brought four guns to school.

She also said the district’s schools are wide open to intruders. “We have accessible schools. Crazy people don’t respect the boundaries of a public school perimeter.”

Before arming school police officers, the community should look long and hard at the justification for such a move, one education expert said.

“I hate the idea of schools turning into armed camps,” said Stephen Lafer, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I’d like to hear more from the school district and police officers about why they now need firearms, when for years they didn’t. I can’t think of many incidents where officers are threatened. … Is there any compelling evidence that guns are going to solve any problems?”

Mieras contended that school police deal with many issues near school property—suspicious people, traffic stops in school zones, domestic calls, custody cases, restraining orders and sex offenders.

Still, public schools don’t have the kind of crime that occurs in downtown Reno. If school police need to confront, say, a suspected methamphetamine dealer close to campus, they can do what they’ve always done: Call the police department.

“It seems they have always been able to contact other authorities and get the help needed,” Lafer said. “I don’t know of any incidents I’ve heard of in recent years where guns would have come in handy.”

The education instructor has spent plenty of time on public school campuses all over the valley.

“I’ve never been on a campus and thought I’d feel better if someone was around with a firearm,” he said. “If you don’t have to put guns in a public place, it’s best to do without them.”

And, though Lafer said he understands the need for increased security at, for example, airports, it doesn’t exactly make him feel safer to be in the presence of officers armed with rifles.

“The airport has become a scary place,” he said. “I feel rather uncomfortable not knowing if these are well-trained peace officers who’d only use guns as a peace officer would.”

The school officers would be trained if the trustees agreed to arm them, Mieras said. High Sierra Police Academy would offer a 40-hour course for the officers, and it wouldn’t be the first time they have gone through the course.

“It is important to note that the proposed training is a refresher for the officers, since the school district police officers are thoroughly trained in the Police Academy, side by side with all other police officers in the state of Nevada,” Mieras said.

Mieras said the training of the officers would include one full day of “scenario” training, during which the officers would review what kind of scenarios are appropriate for gun use.

He also mentioned the “level 3” holster the officers would be using, and that it would be nearly impossible for a student or anyone else to pull out an officer’s gun. “For an individual to pull it out, they have to get it just right.”

While no one would argue against the desire for safe schools, school police did not offer empirical data to show that arming school officers would make them safer.

“There is no study that would identify that,” Mieras said.

In fact, some worry that an arms build-up in schools could be counterproductive.

Even a well-trained officer can get nervous or trigger-happy, worry critics of armed school cops. Parents, students, educators and other community leaders agree that they’d hate to see a student shot in the heat of a bad decision on behalf of a school police officer.

“Well-trained police officers make mistakes. They’re not perfect,” said Roberto Nerey, who attended the recent school board meeting. Nerey, the director of Unlimited Intervention, a local group dedicated to preventing youth violence, said municipal police officers make mistakes by firing their guns prematurely in heated situations. It would be just as possible for the school district officers to do the same. “What makes the school district think their security guards will do any better?”

The decision to arm the officers would be inappropriate, he said. “So much can go wrong with it.”

Deidre Pike contributed to this story.