Ever since the Newtown Connecticut school shooting, there’s been a raging debate over how to keep America’s school children safe. National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre proposed stationing an armed guard in every school in the country. Critics said that idea was impractical and would be too expensive to carry out.
But many schools and school districts already have armed police officers. Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, about one-third of the schools in the U.S. have added some kind of armed security, according to federal data.
And one such district in Stockton, Calif., a Central Valley city, has had its own experience with a school massacre.
Securing School Campuses
Stockton Unified School District Police Officer Myra Franco’s black-and-white squad car is speeding towards Cleveland Elementary School. It’s already on lockdown because the city police are looking for an armed suspect who was last spotted a couple of blocks from the campus.
“The description we have is a black male, around 25 years of age, wearing a black hoodie and some black sweats,” says the 5-year veteran. “So we’re going to keep our eyes on the lookout for him. But our primary focus is to make sure that the campus is safe.”
Coincidentally, Cleveland Elementary was the site of one of the country’s first school mass shootings, back in 1989. A young white supremacist with a criminal history opened fire killing five children and wounding 30 other people, including a teacher. The victims were primarily Southeast Asian refugees.
As Franco drives up and gets out of her car, the campus is completely silent. Doors locked, lights out. No one is moving around outside. The only potential hiding place is a bathroom. Franco and another officer both draw their weapons.
“Anybody in the bathroom?” Franco calls out.
Both officers move cautiously inside the bathroom where they check each and every stall. They find no one inside and after a few more tense minutes, Franco appears to relax. She says there’s no threat on campus.
Minutes later, Franco’s boss, Stockton School Police Chief Jim West arrives to get briefed on the situation.
The School Police Beat
Franco and West belong to a department of 20 police officers. It was originally established not long after the 1989 massacre at Cleveland Elementary. Today, the department keeps an eye on K-12 school campuses — 50 of them — in a city that is ranked per capita as one of the most violent in the country.
But protecting schools from external threats, like an active school shooter, is only part of the job.
Back at his office, West says much more of their time is spent protecting the students from each other.
“What you see here is a collection over a span of many years that are examples of some of the contraband that we’ve confiscated,” says West, pointing to a glass display case outside of his office. He lists knives, guns, gang paraphernalia and homemade objects.
West says that about three years ago, the district began assigning what he calls “school resource officers” to high schools and he saw an immediate pay-off. At one school, he says, violent incidents between students dropped by more than half.
“From our perspective, the best crime is the one that never happens,” he says. “So we’re constantly trying to get information from children that will help us prevent the fight, prevent any tragedies, and the way you do that is by creating relationships with them. And Myra is one of our officers that does that very well.”
An Officer, A Mentor
Myra Franco wears a bulletproof vest under her blue uniform and carries a gun at her right hip. She’s a street-savvy Stockton native, an experience that seems to come in handy at her regular beat at Amos Alonso Stagg High School.
As Franco walks around the campus during lunch hour, she jokes that if there are going to be any fights at school, they’ll happen at lunch. However, the mood is light this particular day.
Many students seem not to notice her at all. But several groups of students do approach her, some with small talk and others with tidbits of information about tensions on and off campus.
“What I kind of try to do is not lecture them, but try to talk to them more as, you know, at their level so that they can understand… why they shouldn’t be doing the [bad] things they do,” she says.
She’s a mentor figure for them. “The way I see it, it’s like they’re all my kids!” she says with a laugh.
One advantage, Franco says, is the fact that students know that she’ll be on campus every day. “They think twice before they do something because they’re like, ‘What’s Franco going to tell me?’ Because they know I will get on them.”
Just last January, Stagg High School was locked down after a report that a student had brought a gun on campus. “We had to stay in class and stay under the tables for about three hours,” student Mimi Gonzales says.
But, she says, knowing that Franco was around had a calming effect. Gonzales says it makes a difference having the officer on campus.
“She’ll probably stop the violence from going on, or if somebody tries to bring a gun or anything, they’ll stop it,” the student says.
Trusting An Officer
A moment later, another student approaches Franco. She begins saying she doesn’t want to be a “snitch” but ends up telling Franco what she saw anyway.
The young student, clutching her books across her chest, didn’t want to be interviewed. But after a few minutes Franco explains what happened.
“She’s [the student] saying that yesterday when she was walking home she saw two students from Stagg High School, who are a couple, the male was beating the female. We’re looking at a potential domestic violence incident,” Franco says.
Less than 15 minutes later, the alleged female victim is summoned to her counselor’s office to talk with Franco and a health specialist.
The details of their conversation were private. But Franco and the other school officials learn that the girl and her boyfriend did have a violent fight. The girl is checked for bruises, but she has none. After the girl returns to her class, Franco and the other school officials agree that they will plan for an intervention.
As we walk out of that meeting, Franco stops to reflect on what has just happened. A student trusted her enough to tip her off about a case of domestic violence. She says it’s common for students to give her a lead.
“I don’t know if it’s … because I grew up in Stockton — I guess you can say I can talk like people in Stockton do,” Franco says. “So for some reason, a lot of people just come up to me and they want to tell me stuff.”
Franco says she’s sure that her police car parked in front of the school discourages any outsider who wants to come on campus with the intent of doing harm. But she’s quick to add that having the trust of everyone inside the school is just as important to her.