A late summer afternoon, seemingly innocuous, is interrupted by a threat, a dangerous one; the school is in lockdown, but to any given student on campus, this threat is unnamed. As police officers raid most every room, it becomes apparent someone has procured a weapon of some kind; no shots have been fired, but that could change any minute. Students idly sit in their classrooms, the only available protection being their Biblically sized textbooks, and as every silent minute passes, the danger looms larger.
Finally, the announcements come on, ostensibly lifting the school-wide tension with appreciated timeliness. Class will resume soon, and the threat, still unexplicit yet almost tacitly obvious, has been vacated from school premises. Who do we have to thank? Well, the answer is complicated, a mixture of responsible students, administration, and first responders. However, this begs a question: when something as dangerous as a handgun infiltrates our West High campus, what are West’s own designated police officers doing to protect the students and staff?
I am certainly not the first to propose this question; in fact, our very own principal, Ford White, appears to be considering a rather extreme and controversial proposal regarding West’s “school resource officers,” that being their complete removal from our campus. This may appear to be an unnecessary measure to improve West High’s students’ level of comfort during school, as police officers can be intimidating simply by the nature of their duties, but Ford, and most likely some of West’s other major constituents, probably have good reason to be considering such a substantial alteration to school policy.
I decided to interview the people that would be most affected by the instatement of a police-free campus, namely the students, parents, and resource officers of West High.
When speaking with a few of our students, there was never a consistent sentiment regarding the school’s resource officers; one student favored no resource officers, citing a lack of constant “danger at school;” another favored only one officer at West during school hours, citing the same reason, and another student entertained the idea of increasing police presence, as the officers “provide a great care to the campus” and add, rather than detract, a sense of security in the students. It felt that the students of West were generally ambivalent towards the issue, regardless of their preferences; it did not seem to be that pressing of a matter.
The parents, on the other hand, were much more forthcoming with their opinions, which were admittedly more nuanced than the students’. Though all the parents I spoke to either were complacent with the number of resource officers at West or favored an elevated presence, citing reasons like “drugs […] guns […] fights” and several other crimes, they all recognized how resource officers could be harmful. One parent brought up the idea that officers elicit the feeling from the students that “nobody will even have the chance to do anything bad on [their] watch.” It creates discomfort and some students, especially minority students who have greater chances of being stopped/questioned by police, do not feel that school resource officers provide more protection than none at all.
Finally, I spoke to the effective “bread and butter” of this story: the resource officers themselves. Though both of the officers are currently stationed at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, they both had much to say on the nature of campus resource officers and why, as they argued, are so necessary for the security of any campus, including our own West High. One of the officers was the head resource officer of West for a multitude of years, only recently transferring to Horizonte, and he explained the need for contant, school police presence. He explained how his relationship with the students during his tenure at West was “very good;” in fact he was made a “going-away poster” by the students he had worked with and had become acquainted with during his time here. He told me a lot about the bond he formed with his students and described himself and his fellow officers as “counselors” to the students. The other officer reiterated most of his colleague’s major points, citing the “familiarity” the officers have with their assigned school and students as a crucial reason to maintaining a steady police presence on campus. The resource officers saw themselves as friends, rather than authorities, to the students, and they saw almost no benefit in completely eliminating the police presence at West High.
Ultimately, it is up to Ford, and most likely his superiors within the Salt Lake School District, to make this decision, but regardless of what they opt to do, some backlash will be inevitable. If they choose to sustain or even increase the presence of resource officers at West, some students will understandably be upset with the disregard the administration will have expressed for their discomfort at school, and if they choose to eliminate the school resource officers, parents will invariably file complaints and some may even remove their children from the school for a lack of perpetual security. It simply comes down to how much of a “resource” these resource officers actually are. If another potential shooting occurs, and the school is left with no armed officers immediately on hand, their utility will seem endless, but it is the other side of the coin that needs to be inspected, because if a West High student becomes another Eric Garner or Michael Brown, that sense of security that these officers purportedly maintain will become obsolete, and if that day ever comes, perhaps we will be having a much different conversation.