Armed guards would cost schools $138M

Published 11:25 am Wednesday, December 26, 2012

By Steve Brandt
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Putting an armed guard in every Minnesota school would require the hiring of hundreds of police or security guards and could cost in the neighborhood of $138 million.

“The cost would be just astronomical,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, who senses opposition to the NRA’s proposal from his 43 Twin Cities area districts goes beyond the cost factor.

“They don’t feel the answer would be to bring more guns into the schools,” he said.

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A few districts already station armed police in schools. But those officers spend little of their time standing in the schoolhouse door to block intruders.

“That’s a very small part of it,” said Lt. Andy Smith, head of the Minneapolis juvenile unit. “It’s such a much more complex job than being armed security.”

Minneapolis schools spend close to $900,000 annually to station 16 officers in schools, along with the cost of a supervisor and school patrol officer. That’s just part of the tab. The Police Department underwrites the cost of cars, radios and summer salaries. St. Paul has a similar but smaller program.

School groups contacted on Monday said they lack hard information about the number of schools currently with armed protection. It’s more common in the metro area and in secondary schools, said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. He said he’d rather see conversations on addressing gun control and mental health issues.

For officer Mike Kirchen at Lucy Laney at Cleveland Park Community School, his day is likely to start with a high five or fist bump with North Side students as they stream off the bus. It’s part of what he sees as his main job — developing a relationship with the kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

“Our No. 1 job in schools is to connect with kids on a personal level,” Kirchen said. Sometimes students pull him aside to talk about things that happened while they were out of school. One example was a seventh-grader who wanted to talk about police officers shooting his neighbor’s dog, something Kirchen said he was able to talk through with the student.

Kirchen said he “let’s them see a different side of Minneapolis cops than they see” outside school.

According to a breakdown by the Minneapolis Police Department’s juvenile division, nine of every 10 contacts between school resource officers like Kirchen and students are positive ones. The rest can involve drugs, bullying, theft and vandalism, with fights the most common. School discipline is left to deans and assistant principals, but officers have discretion to handle some conduct that crosses the line into breaking the law without a citation, using mentoring or mediation programs, Smith said.

“These men and women are there not as a hammer but to foster positive relationships and make the most out of these lives,” Smith said.

Police and school interviewers jointly screen applicants for the program. “It was important to find the right 16 officers,” Kirchen said. “I’ve heard from some officers that they don’t have the mentality to deal with kids all day.”

Good relationships bear fruit, Smith said, including recovering weapons. “Because of the relationships that are built, students will come up to school resource officers and say, ‘Just so you know, this is going on.’ We are able to prevent incidents.”

Those relationships are fostered over summers as well. Kirchen developed a bike officer program that’s active in four precincts; officer Dennis Milner, who works at Roosevelt High School, launched a summer mentoring program.

Stationing a police officer in all 1,968 public schools in Minnesota would be expensive, based on average earnings of $70,500 reported in 2012 for the statewide police and fire pension plan. But that cost of $138 million could be trimmed somewhat if armed security guards were used. St. Paul schools, for example, pay for 10 police officers, but also employ patrols of security guards who check on alarms and do other duties.

Neither the Minneapolis nor St. Paul school boards has discussed the NRA suggestion to date. More secure doors and windows might make some schools safer, Minneapolis chairman Alberto Monserrate said, but he’s not ready to give all schools a guard. He cited the recovery of a gun from a staffer at Seward Montessori School last week as proof that the district security system works. “There’s more realistic ways of keeping our kids safe,” he said.

“I think the NRA suggestion is a very simplistic view of the world,” said Jean O’Connell, chair of the St. Paul school board.