I-Team: CCSD Police Chief Evaluates School Safety

Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the recent tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. Should Americans' Second Amendment rights be restricted in the interests of public safety, or is gun violence something that no law could curb? This is Part 7 of Guns of Nevada.

LAS VEGAS -- A December rampage at a Connecticut school by a heavily-armed man with a history of mental problems sparked a national debate about gun violence and gun control, and prompted school districts everywhere to evaluate their own security.

Clark County schools have already instituted changes in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. There are even proposals that would put more guns in the hands of staffers at local schools.

Every year, local school police seize guns on area campuses, at high schools and even middle schools. They've recovered five so far this school year. Much of the time, officers are alerted to the weapons by teachers or students. While Nevada hasn't had a tragedy on the scale of Sandy Hook, that incident weighs heavily on the minds of school police, including the new police chief.

"I was sitting right here and watching it on TV," said Chief Jim Ketsaa of the Clark County School District Police. "It was a tragic, tragic event."

Like every other school police officer in the United States, Ketsaa reacted in horror to the procession of death at the Sandy Hook school. As details surfaced about how the deranged killer methodically gunned down 20 children and six adults, Ketsaa mentally evaluated the safety of Clark County schools and how his officers might have responded.

"Measures are in place already," Ketsaa said. "Security cameras, school doors are locked from the outside, gates are normally locked, things like that. We've updated things. Schools normally have security plans. They know where to go, what to do and how to react in certain situations."

He said that short of transforming schools into fortresses, they will always be at risk. Statistically, schools are among the safest places in the community, but for an armed lunatic, they will always be a temptation.

"We are soft targets, Ketsaa said. "You are going to get a lot of press and a lot of headlines if you do something at a school."

One change ordered by Ketsaa since the Sandy Hook slaughter is increased visibility of school police officers in and around all campuses. When officers are not involved in a service call, they are to visit schools, be seen, and interact with students, parents and staff.

"The omni-presence of officers all over the place, and patrol cars parked out in front of the school, that's a deterrent right there," he said.

Nevada schools struggle with budget challenges year after year, but security is one area where Clark County schools are ahead of the national curve. The school police invested years ago in an armory that includes 20 AR-15's, the same type of guns used by the killer at Sandy Hook. Officers can also qualify to carry their own rifles, and many do.

In the department's state-of-the-art dispatch center, real time images flow in from every school in the district via 15,000 cameras already in place. But, at Sandy Hook and the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the killers did most of their damage in mere minutes. The solution, some say, is to have more guns in schools.

"If a bad guy is the only person with a gun, you are at their mercy, and that didn't work out too well at Sandy Hook," gun rights advocate Randy Mackie said. "If there is someone there with a gun, at least they've got a chance."

Instead of tighter controls on guns in general, the National Rifle Association and others argue, guns should be put in the hands of the good guys at schools. In Nevada and elsewhere, there are proposals to put an armed officer in every school, and to allow teachers and staff to pack their own heat.

Ketsaa said he sees big problems with both. He doesn't oppose having an officer in every school and already does have officers assigned to every local high school. However, in a state that already underfunds its schools, according to critics, a massive increase in school police officers isn't realistic.

"We would probably triple in size, and who is going to fund that? We are competing for education dollars," Ketsaa said. "We are not going to take dollars out of the classroom to hire 300, 400 more officers. I don't see that happening."

Allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons is fraught with peril, Ketsaa said. Even police officers, with all their training, shoot accurately only 18 percent of the time when someone is shooting back. An armed officer at Columbine High School didn't stop the shooters there.

The liability for the district if a teacher shot a student or a student accessed a teacher's gun, could be huge.

"If they respond to a threat, who is watching those kids in a classroom, alone? I would feel a lot better if I knew there was an adult in those classrooms in a lockdown situation, helping those kids," he said. "I truly believe we need to keep our kids safe, but teacher are there to teach."

The annual budget for Clark County School District Police is just more than $21 million, and it pays for 163 officers. To put a single officer at each elementary school would more than double the size of the entire force. Covering all schools and all shifts might mean tripling the police force, a huge investment of public dollars at a time when schools are fighting for every cent.

The Nevada Legislature is expected to debate the question of guns in schools in the coming weeks.


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