Criminologists' critique questions NRA task force school safety strategy

Journal article calls gun lobby plan 'superficially simple'

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National School Shield Task Force Director, former Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, holds a copy of group's study during a news conference at National Press Club in Washington Tuesday. The National Rifle Association's study recommends schools across the nation each train and arm at least one staff member. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP

Just as a National Rifle Association task force unveiled its “National School Shield” report this week, a detailed critique from three criminologists termed the gun lobby’s push for enhanced school security “superficially simple.”

Two professors at Marshall University in West Virginia who are studying incarcerated school shooters and one professor at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military school, published their jointly written critique this month in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.

The criminologists began their review last December after the NRA announced its “National School Shield” project in response to a gunman’s massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators in a Newtown, Conn. school.  The NRA’s initial thrust was to urge schools to hire more police, but also persuade states to allow teachers or other willing staff or volunteers to carry arms. The NRA said it would provide training. In addition, the firearms association formed a task force to study schools’ vulnerabilities and make suggestions.

That  task force unveiled a 225-page report at a press conference Tuesday with “best practices” recommendations, including advice on installing bullet-proof glass and surveillance equipment, redesigning doors and outdoor areas, seeking advice from consultants and putting an armed guard or armed employee in every school.

“Let me emphasize, this is not talking about (arming) all teachers,” said task force director Asa Hutchinson, a former congressman from Arkansas who also was an administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Teachers should teach. But if there is a personnel that has good experience and has an interest in it, and is willing to go through this training of, again, 40 to 60 hours that is totally comprehensive, then that is an appropriate resource that a school should be able to utilize."

The report offers a guide to school resource officers. It suggests schools use specific types of programs to identify and treat students who might be at risk of committing violence.

After looking over the report, the criminologists saw nothing that would change their conclusions about the NRA’s ideas, according to one of the authors, Angela Crews, professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va. Crews’ co-authors are her husband Gordon Crews, also a professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Marshall University,  and Catherine Burton, associate professor of Criminal Justice at The Citadel.  

“To prevent school violence, society must first address troubled youth who have easy access to weapons,” the authors wrote, calling the NRA’s ideas “superficially simple” with risks of negative consequences.

The NRA, they also wrote, has presented itself as a “seemingly ready-made provider of all things necessary for the level of school security required for the safety of children.”

In their piece, the criminologists echo juvenile-court judges and others who are concerned that putting more police into schools – for the purpose of protecting students – could end up needlessly referring  more students to the criminal-justice system for minor reasons.

The criminologists also warn that schools will take on substantial criminal and civil liability risks if they rush to hire security guards with insufficient vetting or allow staff to carry arms once they’ve had training certified by the NRA or another entity.

“The potential for that liability looms large for anyone who ‘certifies’ that another person knows how, and more importantly, when to fire a weapon,” the article says.

The NRA task force’s “model security plans,” the article also says, calls for costly security investments that would “potentially only serve to increase profits for those invested in security industries.”

Crews said she found it troubling that most of the 13 members of the “National School Shield Task Force” are affiliated with security advisory or design businesses that could stand to profit from schools seeking more security infrastructure.

“Comprising a task force primarily of representatives from two private consulting firms is highly suspect, especially when most, if not all of the members seem to be connected with government and/or private security endeavors,” Crews told the Center for Public Integrity. 

“If we were forming such a task force, we would have consulted mainly experts in violent juvenile criminal behavior, experts in K-12 education, and experts in juvenile mental health. These people come mainly from military, governmental or private security backgrounds,” she said.

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.

Hutchinson, at his press event, called the security professionals experts in their field who were best equipped to study schools’ vulnerabilities. 

Two security advisory businesses, Command Consulting Group and Phoenix RBT Solutions, have been open about their executives’ participation in the NRA’s 13-member task force.

Neither firm responded to request for comment on the questions Crews raised about possible conflicts of interest. However, on the Command Consulting Group website, the businesses jointly announced their executives’ participation in the NRA’s task force and explained that they were already working with schools and school police with training and to improve security needs.

“Our team was proud to contribute in identifying current vulnerabilities and best practices for schools,” task force member Ralph Basham, former director of the U.S. Secret Service and a founder of Command Consulting Group, says on the website.

Anthony Lambraia, owner of Phoenix RBT Solutions and also a member of the task force, is quoted on the Command Consulting Group website as saying: “The time to effect change in school safety programs is long overdue. We’ve provided training programs guidelines and a best practices manual that offers actionable steps that can be taken to address school safety concerns.”

The NRA task force report suggests making school security funds available from the Department of Homeland Security; traditionally, most federal dollars for such programs have come through grant programs operated by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.

“It is recommended that the Department of Homeland Security grants should be open for school security programs such as training, risk assessment and security response planning. This would not involve any additional federal funds, but would open up schools as a potential recipient of the Homeland Security grants,” the NRA task fund report says.

(In response to the Newtown killings, the Obama Administration is requesting $150 million for schools to hire more police or counselors or purchase other security needs. The money would be administrated mostly through the Education and Justice departments, with officials saying that it would be contingent upon schools agreeing to Justice Department-approved training of police on how to work in a school environment.)  

Hutchinson, the task force director, said the group’s conclusions were “independent” of the NRA, which paid for the $1 million effort to scrutinize school safety at various locations. The task force dropped the NRA’s initial idea of persuading schools to recruit armed volunteers to protect schools that couldn’t afford guards.

But the task force report argues that having at least one armed guard or employee in every school could deter an attack or prevent mass killings.

The report released Tuesday contains “model legislation” legislators could draw from to change state laws so that school employees could carry licensed and concealed weapons at schools. A number of states, such as Mississippi, are already debating bills that were fashioned in consultation with NRA representatives.  

Crews, who is conducting a national study of school shooters, told the Center that the research raises serious questions about staff members bringing weapons onto school grounds and carrying or storing them there.

“Ongoing research that we are conducting with incarcerated perpetrators of school violence also indicates that school shooters have easy access to weapons, often getting them — either as gifts or stealing them — from their parents, neighbors or friends who may have purchases them legally,” Crews said. “Putting more weapons in schools just makes more weapons available because inevitably, someone will forget to lock their drawer, misplace their key, or otherwise lose track of their firearm, making it easy for kids who want to have one to take it.”