When Michael Newman was a kid, he usually just tried to avoid the people he had problems with at school. But early in his career as a substitute teacher in Florida, he realized things are more complicated on the other side of the desk. Apart from the delicate politics that come with that profession—he says he was once banned from a teacher's classroom for daring to suggest Ayn Rand was a bad writer—if a kid makes trouble or exhibits disturbing behavior, it's not like you can just avoid them.
If there were a kid with a dead look in his eyes telling racist jokes he'd picked up from Stormfront and openly fantasizing about guns, for instance, Newman still had to teach him. That, coupled with the fact that his co-workers often seemed to shrug such characters off, made for a terrifying routine. In fact, it's what ultimately led Newman to quit teaching for good in back in 2014.
"A breaker must have blown, because the power went out in my room," he recalled. "I immediately freaked out and locked the doors and closed the windows cause I was not gonna die that day. I ended up calling the front office on my phone, and they just sent a maintenance person to flip the breaker. But that fear—that's when I knew I couldn't make a career out of it."
Newman might be an extreme example, but he's certainly not alone in feeling like teachers are ill-prepared for dealing with a maybe-shooter in their midst. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting that left 17 people dead in Florida dead last week, survivors turned activists are begging Congress and the president to make semiautomatic rifles harder for disturbed people to purchase. Meanwhile, local sheriff Scott Israel said his deputies would now be carrying rifles of their own, and the president went so far as to suggest that teachers get bonuses for carrying guns themselves.
As a product of Florida's public school system, I'm a bit disturbed by the prospect of who might be attracted to teaching if and when packing a gun were to be financially incentivized. But leaving that side, experts have been pretty clear that, at least historically, shooters have not targeted gun-free zones. What's more, the veteran school resource officers (SROs) I spoke to this week agreed that those measures would not necessarily make them feel more safe. What they suggested instead was decreasing the ratio between school cops and students and engaging in what is essentially a more robust form of community policing.
Matt Liston got his start as an armed school resource officer in 1997, as what he calls a "pre-Columbine SRO." Back then, he said, his department paid 100 percent of his salary. But after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at their Colorado high school, the feds helped pay for for about 6,300 officers to be stationed in schools across the country. Today the Derby, Kansas, policeman is an instructor for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) who teaches a weeklong class to school-cops across the country.
"I don't necessarily think that an armed guard standing out front of the school would be the answer," he told me, adding, "More SROs might be the answer, and I think the relationship piece is the more important piece to all this. I think talking to kids, bridging that gap, and kids feeling comfortable to come forward with that information," is essential.
But while adding more cops could help mitigate the problem, police presence—even an armed one—does not seem like a particularly effective countermeasure right now. After all, Scot Peterson, the sheriff's deputy stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, heard the slaughter from outside and did nothing, his boss told the press Thursday. Peterson is also said to have either ignored or failed to respond aggressively to repeated warnings that Nikolas Cruz was a potential shooter.
Liston noted that not much has changed in the world of school resources officers since the introduction of the SRO funding back at the turn of the millennium. (The extra cash was nixed after 2005.) And the curriculum he teaches now—which centers heavily around how to intervene when a kid is troubled—does not seem ideally suited for facing down an AR-15-armed teen.
In fact, Jimmy Angeles, an armed school resource officer at Winter Park High School in Orlando, told me he received no job-specific active shooter training as an SRO. He added that each of the seven years he's been in the profession, he and his department have run through scenarios at places like local movie theaters. But the 39-year-old said that when they run the training at the campus where he works, it's mostly to familiarize other area cops with the school's layout so that if "Meet me at the 700 building," went out on the radio during an emergency, there'd be no confusion.
The idea is that the officers on the beat would often be the first responders in a shooting. But the implication is that there's been disturbingly little consideration of what school cops like Angeles—and by extension, Peterson at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—are supposed to do until backup arrives. Still, Angeles doesn't think that having assault weapons on campus is necessarily the best approach. Like Liston, he suspects it all comes down to the campus version of community policing, though he also thinks faculty should perhaps be running drills with cops in what might amount to a more sophisticated version of the active-shooter training programs for students and staff already in place at schools like Marjory Stoneman.
"I think that there should be a plan in progress, and there should be certain people within the school that might be able to be part of a tactical team maybe, and put them through the same training that police officers have," Angeles told me. "I think that might be a better option than telling everybody that we're all going to have rifles in a school." Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.