Exactly two years ago today, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shocked the nation to its core. Twenty children and six adult staff members of the school lost their lives in the deadliest mass shooting at a grade or high school in U.S. history.
Recent statistics about shootings in schools are disturbing, too. In the past two years, American schools have been the scene of at least 95 shootings, ranging from fatal and nonfatal attacks to suicides and accidental incidents.
Fifty-two percent of those shootings occurred at elementary and high schools while the others took place at colleges and universities, a new report by the Everytown For Our Safety organization indicates. Nine of those were in Florida, second in the nation for these crimes.
While the Manatee County school board rushed into the hiring of private security guards for 31 grade schools this past summer, their concern is well placed -- as recent history well proves. But those guards had to be disarmed and then dismissed after several issues arose.
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The question of the legality of firearms in schools carried by anyone other than law enforcement officers propelled the school district into uncharted territory.
The administration requested an interpretation of state law from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. She issued a legal opinion two weeks ago that cited the state's "home rule" privilege in allowing private security forces inside schools "in support of school-sanctioned activities."
Bondi's decision counters established practice but opens the door to school districts around the state to contract with private security guards, a cost-saving measure over paying certified law enforcement officers.
That was the roadblock in Manatee County as placing school resource officers -- sheriff's deputies and police -- in 31 elementary schools carried at estimated $3.4 million annual cost. The district's now discarded contract with Sarasota Security Patrol only cost $1 million for the first year.
The attorney general's advisory opinion -- which is not binding in a court of law, Bondi's office noted -- did vindicate Manatee County's position in the hiring of private guards. That might not be the final resolution, however, as the attorney general's opinions do not address legislative, executive or administrative policies.
Manatee County's middle and high schools are protected by law enforcement, school resource officers as they are known. During the recession, elementaries lost those officers due to budget cuts.
This year, grade school principals and parents embraced the security guards as a very welcome safeguard. These school deserve society's protection.
Sandy Hook reignited the issue of stricter gun control. But public attitudes have shifted dramatically. For the first time in two decades of surveys, a Pew Research Center poll conducted just days ago found a majority of Americans support the protection of gun ownership rights over limited access. One of the Pew researchers attributed that dramatic change to the Newtown murders.
One of Manatee County's lawmakers, state Rep. Greg Steube, once again filed a legislative bill that would grant a "school safety designee" to carry firearms on K-12 school property, with the permission by school boards and the authorization by school superintendents. That bill will come up for debate next year.
While Steube's measure is well intentioned and would benefit cash-strapped school districts most, we have long favored the employment of commissioned law enforcement officers in schools.
And we appreciate schools Superintendent Rick Mills current negotiations with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and Bradenton Police Department to place officers in grade schools in the coming budget year. This is the best solution to school security. Highly trained professionals are best equipped to deal with active shooting situations.