7:15 PM EST, January 4, 2013
The mass murder of small children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14 has spurred debate on, among other things, school security. The National Rifle Association, perhaps predictably, called for armed guards in every school.
While about a third of U.S. public school already have police or security officers, that is not the only option. In the days since the Newtown shootings, there have been recommendations for stronger doors, silent alarms, louder alarms, electronic man traps, ID cards and other measures aimed at making schools less vulnerable to attack by deranged intruders. National experts have praised Newtown officials for their emergency preparedness planning and training, which almost assuredly saved lives at Sandy Hook.
But there is one other long-term policy that communities should consider, and that is where schools are located. For most of U.S. history, schools were built in or near the center of towns or on major arterial roads. In the wave of school construction after World War II, schools tended to be built in more suburban, low-density areas.
The advantages often were more land for parking and playing fields. Though it seemingly was forgotten at the time, urban sites had advantages as well. They were often very close to police and fire stations, libraries and other institutions. You may not need a cop in the school if there are 50 of them across the street. Would an intruder be more likely to enter a school with people around, or one that is isolated?
Plus, importantly, many more kids could walk or bike to schools in population centers.
So though it is a long-term consideration, the location of schools also should be part of the conversation. Towns should make sure that their zoning regulations do not prohibit building schools in more densely settled areas. If parking is a bit more difficult, that's a small price to pay. Sometimes, as planners say, proximity trumps mobility.
Schools across the country have begun reviewing their security policies, and that is appropriate. This is an issue for each school district. The NRA has not offered to pay for all the new guards, and districts that are laying off teachers may find it hard to justify hiring more security staff. There may be ways to share police services. Each school is different; all children are precious.
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