Armed guards at Idaho schools: Is this the best choice for rural classrooms?

Signs like this greet visitors in the parking lot and entrances to Idaho’s Garden Valley School, which has about 250 students in pre-k through 12th grades.
Signs like this greet visitors in the parking lot and entrances to Idaho’s Garden Valley School, which has about 250 students in pre-k through 12th grades. Provided by Garden Valley School

We all agree with the desire to protect students in remote, rural classrooms, who are far from available law enforcement officers. But we worry that the notion of hiring armed guards to patrol school grounds is a well intentioned decision districts make out of desperation rather than careful deliberation.

Lakeland School District wants to start with a guard at Athol elementary, which has the longest law enforcement response times — 22 minutes in one recent case (Athol is about midway between Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene in Kootenai County). Ultimately, the district wants armed guards at all 11 schools. Taxpayers support the idea of having lethal force ready to respond in case of school emergency, said Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sexton.

We are sympathetic, but troubled, by such plans. Arming trained police officers is a better option than hiring uncertified guards at $42,000 a pop. What makes even more sense is taking steps to control access that make schools safer, with less need for armed guards.

Secure, controlled entries are low-risk, one-time expenses that entail fewer ongoing costs for struggling districts. One option the state could consider to help those Idaho districts: Dedicate state lottery funds to schools to underwrite just such safety measures.

Districts that are building new schools or remodeling older schools are incorporating centralized, secure entrances in their new designs. Yes, it is harder to retrofit older schools built in the days before we had to plan for intruders with destructive intentions. But that is preferable to a posse of guards roaming school grounds in perpetuity. And ensuring that every school staffer is trained to respond quickly and effectively to save lives is at least as effective as relying on a single armed person trying to defend an entire school campus.

School districts in Idaho are overseen by local school boards and local administrators who know their districts best, and we wouldn’t change that. Some rural schools, like Garden Valley, have armed and trained school staffers to respond to emergencies. Garden Valley is 45 minutes from the Boise County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho City, and in winter response times can be much longer still. Prominent signs on school doors warn visitors that staffers are “legally armed and can use whatever force necessary to protect students and staff.” So far, at least, that approach is working for Garden Valley.

But we worry about putting guns in the hands of security guards who are not trained for dealing with students, hostages or active shooters – the very scenarios for which we need qualified, trained experts.

We also worry about what kind of background these guards, however well intentioned, would have for sensitive work with children, parents, teachers and the hurly-burly of a school environment.

We also worry about the risks of deadly crossfire from security guards placed into high-stress, high-chaos, high-risk crises.

We know it’s easy to knock down such ideas, and we know that rural districts have limited options for responding to public demand for safety assurances. So what can we do beside wring our hands?

First, we want to make sure that Idaho schools – already struggling to find dollars for a variety of very real needs – have access to good advice and guidance when making security decisions. Are armed guards really the best options these schools have, or a first, obvious option? Can the state Department of Education make sure that small, rural districts get state-of-the-art advice and expertise from Idaho and the nation? That would be one way for the state to offer centralized support for local districts as they make these critical decisions about spending limited dollars. Is the state making accessible the latest best practices for preparing all school staffers for all contingencies?

At the very least, we urge schools to protect students by hiring officers who meet the demands and qualifications of the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training, where they will get professional training for handling active-shooter situations.

There’s little doubt that rural Idaho schools are at a disadvantage when an available officer is far away and the unthinkable happens. We applaud Lakeland and other district for thinking this through now, even if we believe their plans still need a little more thinking.

Unsigned editorials represent the opinions of the Statesman Editorial Board.