Campus Cops Scrutinized After Tragic Missteps in Uvalde Shooting Response
School police departments’ readiness to confront lethal threats under a microscope, but research elusive on their effectiveness against mass shooting
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While children called 911 and pleaded for the police to save them during last week’s mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, their cries for help appeared to fall flat for nearly an hour. Instead, as many as 19 officers waited in the hallway until Border Patrol agents breached the classroom and shot the gunman dead.
By that point, the 18-year-old perpetrator had already killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers. The decision to wait, state law enforcement officials announced on Friday, was made by the head of the Uvalde school district’s small, six-person police department. Now, as the initial accounting has been retracted and a far more damning narrative has emerged about the officers’ response, they’ve come under fierce criticism for the delay in storming the classroom.
Squarely in the middle of that is the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Department and its chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, now the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into their handling of the deadly incident. School district police departments, in particular their training, capabilities and readiness to confront lethal threats, are being scrutinized like never before and a long-running debate about the harms and benefits of campus cops has reignited.
Schools have bolstered the ranks of armed school officers in the last several decades — largely in response to mass school shootings like the one that unfolded in Uvalde. Police now have a presence in about 43 percent of public K-12 schools and the Texas massacre — despite what appears to be disastrous decision-making on their part — could further accelerate the trend. Just hours after the Uvalde gunman was neutralized, Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, argued that campus cops are best positioned to stop mass school shootings, stating that “we know from past experiences that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus.”
Yet beyond the anecdotes of heroic cops who successfully saved students from being killed and of officers who failed to live up to their sworn duty to protect innocent lives, research on their efficacy remains mixed. Whether they’re helpful when someone shows up to campus with a gun remains elusive.
As districts nationwide respond to the Uvalde shooting, they should be cautious when adding new officers to schools to prevent future attacks, said Lucy Sorensen, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University of Albany, SUNY, who studies school policing. While school shootings are tragic and politically galvanizing, they remain statistically rare. But officers’ daily presence in schools, she said, could carry negative implications for students — particularly Black youth, who are more likely to be thrust into the school-to-prison pipeline.
“We’ve seen this in response to prior shootings — Columbine, Sandy Hook — where there is this push to harden schools, to add more police officers, add more guns, and the efficacy of these investments is not well established at this point,” Sorensen said, adding that the costs of a full-time police presence in schools could outweigh the advantages. School leaders and lawmakers, she said, “need to think hard about whether this is the right investment or whether it’s a reactionary investment.”
Last year, Sorensen concluded in a report that having an officer on campus “marginally increases the likelihood of a school shooting,” and suggested that officers failed to prevent school shootings and other gun-related incidents. Yet upon further review of the underlying federal data, she backtracked. In an interview Tuesday with The 74, Sorensen said she has now reached a markedly different conclusion. While firearm-related incidents including weapons possession were more frequent in schools with police, the finding could be the result of officers successfully detecting and responding to campus gun incidents.
“This could be an actual increase in gun violence, but we think it’s more being driven by an increase in the detection and reporting of guns that’s happening from police in schools,” she said. If school-based officers are able to identify and confiscate guns from students that would have otherwise remained in their possession, she said it’s “likely a good thing if it potentially prevents gun violence.”
Still, a separate report offers caution. Once mass school shootings occur, researchers at the nonprofit Violence Project found that officers may be ineffective at preventing bloodshed. In an analysis of school shootings over four decades — a total 133 incidents — researchers found that fatalities were three times higher in attacks where an armed guard was present compared to those that unfolded without a security presence. Because the perpetrators of mass shootings are often suicidal, researchers speculate that the perpetrators could even be drawn to places with armed security.
George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 led some school districts to cut ties with the police before COVID-era student behavioral challenges prompted some to reverse course. Through it all, a majority of educators continue to support school-based policing, according to a recent Education Week survey. Among them is Jake Heibel, the principal of Great Mills High School in Maryland, which suffered a school shooting in 2018. In that incident, a 17-year-old student shot two classmates, one fatally, before taking his own life. The shooting ended when the gunman fatally shot himself as a school resource officer simultaneously shot him in the hand.
The school officer’s actions “certainly saved lives that day and we’re eternally grateful,” Heibel said in an interview after the Uvalde shooting. “He did what he needed to do to protect others and he certainly did that day.”
‘The wrong decision, period’
In the immediate aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, officials applauded the responding officers as “heroic” and “courageous,” but the tenor shifted after more information became publicly known. Turns out a school-based cop did not engage the shooter before he entered the school, but one was there: He responded to the scene but drove past the gunman as he crouched down next to a car in the parking lot, officials said.
On Friday, state officials announced that Chief Arredondo, of the Uvalde school district police department, was the incident commander who ordered officers to stand back instead of storming the Robb Elementary School classroom where fourth-graders and educators were locked inside with the gunman. Officials said that Arredondo believed erroneously that the shooter was barricaded inside the classroom and that students’ lives were no longer at risk. Ultimately a tactical team of Border Patrol agents apparently defied Arredondo’s commands, opened the classroom door using a janitor’s keys and fatally shot the gunman.
“From the benefit of hindsight, where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said during a Friday press conference. “It was the wrong decision, period. There was no excuse for that.”
Arredondo’s decision to wait has faced similar rebukes from proponents of school-based policing, including school security consultant Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. Prior to the notorious 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, standard law enforcement procedures called on police to secure the scene’s perimeter and call in the SWAT team. But Columbine “completely changed that,” Trump said, and in recent decades officers are trained to respond to the threat immediately, even if they’re alone on the scene.
After the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, the school resource officer stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Scot Peterson, was charged with criminal negligence after he failed to engage the gunman. While Trump said that Peterson became Parkland’s “second-biggest villain,” after the shooter, he said the law enforcement response in Uvalde was far worse.
“Here you have numerous people who, it would appear, did not follow the best practice for the last two decades,” Trump said.
For Blaine Gaskill, the school resource officer who rushed to stop the armed student at Maryland’s Great Mills High School in 2018, the fear of losing his own life didn’t even cross his mind. In fact, he told The 74, “I didn’t feel anything.”
“I had a job to do and I did it,” he said in an email Friday. Though Gaskill declined to comment on the Texas shooting, he expressed support for campus police, saying they “play a big role in preventing any tragedy.”
“Just our presence alone makes students, parents and staff feel safer,” he said. “We have the ability to respond to any incident very quickly, whether it’s an active threat or a fight in the school. We are seconds away from stopping or intervening in any incident.”
In fact, instruction on a quick response had been provided to officers at the 4,100-student Uvalde school district, which despite its small size maintains its own police force and an array of school security measures, including “threat assessment” teams, a visitor management system that limits access to school buildings and a digital surveillance tool that sifts through social media posts in search of violent threats. In December, Arredondo completed an active-shooter training course that taught participants how to distinguish an active shooting from “a hostage or barricade crisis.” Just two months ago, Uvalde’s school officers were trained on how to respond to an active shooting. The training was based on materials by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, according to The New York Times, which inform officers they may need to put themselves in harm’s way and “display uncommon acts of courage to save the innocent.”
“As first responders we must recognize that innocent life must be defended,” according to the training materials. “A first responder unwilling to place the lives of the innocent above their own safety should consider another career field.”
While Arredondo served as the incident commander, Trump questioned whether his small campus police department was equipped for an emergency of this scale. Many school district police departments lack tactical training, he said, and often defer to larger agencies following major incidents.
“When you form an incident command structure, there is nothing that says that the initial incident commander on scene cannot pass that torch to the representative of another agency, a tactical team that may have more expertise, experience and tactical knowledge,” Trump said. “It can be done. You can pass the torch.”
Why that didn’t happen, and which department was responsible for the string of misinformation released right after the shooting, remains unclear.
While Trump maintained support for campus cops, proponents of police-free schools said that police shortcomings in Uvalde speak to the policy arguments they’ve been making for years. Among them is Maria Fernandez, managing director of campaign strategy at the Advancement Project, a racial justice group. A national movement to remove police from schools landed major policy victories after Floyd’s murder, but the political tides shifted back in favor of policing as students returned to schools during the pandemic and educators reported an uptick in classroom disruptions. The Uvalde shooting is proof that the strategy doesn’t work, Fernandez said.
“The narrative that is so entrenched in our communities is that police equals safety or that they can stop the evil that is moving outside of the school door — and that’s not what happened and they lied about it,” she said. The school district was served by its own police department, “hardened” security measures, a municipal police department that receives about 40% of the city’s annual budget and federal Border Patrol agents. It all failed to save 21 innocent lives.
“This is our nightmare,” Fernandez said. “We know for a fact that police don’t actually generate safety in the face of incredible violence. It’s just so devastating that this had to happen.”
Shootings bolster school policing
The attack in Uvalde is the deadliest mass school shooting in nearly a decade. In 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six educators. If history tells us anything, the Uvalde shooting will precede a rash of local and federal spending on campus policing.
In 2013, a report by the Congressional Research Service noted a limited body of research on the effectiveness of school resource officers, stating flatly that existing reports did “not address whether their presence in schools has deterred mass shootings.” Yet the Sandy Hook tragedy — and the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida — led to an infusion of local and federal money for school-based policing. In the last several decades, the federal government has spent roughly $1 billion to station police in schools. Responding to shootings with school policing and beefed-up security reflects the country’s “neoliberal approach to solving social problems,” said Benjamin Fisher, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Florida State University whose research focuses on campus policing.
“Rather than talking about the one thing that all school shootings have in common — which is the presence of a gun — we are instead focusing on how to make schools different in some way. We’re putting the problem on schools rather than on gun access and availability.”
Since Sandy Hook, researchers have scrutinized the role that police play in schools, and in some cases have found negative unintended consequences, including an increase in student discipline for low-level offenses and a drop in high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Research has found that the negative outcomes are particularly dire for Black students, who are disproportionately subjected to campus arrests.
In her more recent research, Sorensen of the University of Albany, SUNY, found that placing officers in schools leads to an increase in campus safety, but at a great cost to students — particularly those who are Black. The research, which relies on figures from the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, found that officers effectively combat some forms of campus violence including fights, but their presence also correlates with an increase in student suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Students, especially those who are disabled, are chronically absent more when campuses are staffed by cops, she found.
The research isn’t yet peer-reviewed. In fact, it was during the peer-review process that researchers identified a problem, Sorensen said. The Civil Rights Data Collection relies on every school in the U.S. to self-report data on a range of student outcomes and has long been criticized for including inaccuracies. For example, districts have been accused of underreporting campus arrests and instances of sexual misconduct.
When researchers triangulated the federal data on school shootings against news reports, they found that the rate of school shootings appeared to have been overreported, which Sorensen said could be the result of an administrative data error. As a result of unreliable data, she said it remains unclear whether campus cops have any effect on the likelihood of a school shooting.
Still, Sorensen said that the negative outcomes of school policing, like the student suspensions, “aren’t costless.”
“Every child who gets killed in a school shooting is too much, it’s too many kids,” she said, yet such tragedies remain statistically rare and most communities will never have to experience what Uvalde just endured. “I do think it’s important to weigh more heavily the day-to-day impacts of having police officers in schools and what those costs and benefits are.”
The risk of ‘cherry-picking’ anecdotes
As the apparent police failures in Uvalde and officers’ delayed response are dissected, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said in this situation, the officers may have simply been outgunned.
School resource officers are generally equipped with handguns, while the gunman reportedly carried out the attack with an AR-15-style assault rifle. Campus police should have the same equipment as cops assigned to patrol the streets, Canady said, but added that his group is “not involved in politics around the gun debate.”
“Here’s what I know: If gun sales stopped today, there are still millions of guns out in our society, that’s just a fact” he said. “So we have to continue to prepare to defend our communities, which for us is our schools, against the potential for these types of attacks and the potential for us to be outgunned.”
Even as some districts have equipped campuses with rifles and gun safes, he questioned whether that was an effective solution.
“Here’s the thing, unless you’re sitting in that office or right next to it, you’re not going to waste precious seconds to go get the long gun when there’s someone killing babies,” he said. “That is a dynamic that is very difficult to resolve.”
To bolster his argument, Canady pointed to multiple tragedies where the responses by school-based police were credited with saving lives. In March, for example, administrators at a Kansas high school called an officer to help them search a student they believed was armed. When the officer arrived, the student removed a gun from his bag and shot both the officer and a school administrator. The officer, who has since been described as a hero, returned fire and struck the student. All three survived.
Meanwhile Trump, the school security expert, said it’s important to consider school shootings that may have been prevented due to a police presence on campus. Despite a lack of research, he pointed to anecdotes where officers identified students with weapons and uncovered concrete plans to kill. Yet anecdotes also exist of officers failing to uphold their duties.
Fisher, the criminal justice researcher, said there’s reason to be cautious of anecdotal evidence in place of scientific research because it “risks cherry-picking.”
“Anecdotes allow us to craft a narrative because we don’t have to subject our beliefs to systematic and reproducible inquiry,” he said. “We can pick the pieces of evidence that we want — and that’s on both sides of the argument.”
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