A week after the elementary school massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre called for schools around the country to employ armed guards to keep students safe. But for tens of thousands of Inland Empire students who return to school this week, armed security is something they've had all along.
"We have had a school police department since April 2002," said Thomas Hoegerman, Superintendent of Apple Valley Unified. School police department members average 14 years of active duty experience as police officers, according to the district, and train alongside San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputies. They're paid about $8,000 less than the average salary of an AVUSD teacher. (According to TeacherSalaryInfo.com, the median income for AVUSD teachers ranges between $54,000 and $62,026 for K-12 teachers.)
Following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, AVUSD decided to bolster its security when students returned to school this week.
"We actually put a couple of our reserve (police officers) on," Hoegerman said. "So they're out and remaining vigilant."
A number of public school districts in Southern California have their own police departments, including Baldwin Park Unified, Fontana Unified, Hesperia Unified, Inglewood Unified, Montebello Unified, San Bernardino City Unified and San Diego Unified. Many more contract with local law enforcement agencies for Special Resource Officers (SROs), who are assigned to patrol the district by their department.
Mango Elementary School, in Fontana Unified, doesn't have a police officer on campus all day long - the district's officers typically shift to the secondary schools during the school day - and staff and parents are mixed about whether the school needs it.
"To me, it's like worrying about getting struck by lightning," said Mike Kirkpatrick, a special education teacher at the school. "How many layers of protection are needed if you're going to eliminate every (threat)?"
Police officers typically work traffic control at the school, as school police officers and SROs do in many districts. And that's fine with mother Brandi Harger.
"I think probably before and after school" are the only time security is needed, she said, "because of how open (it is). But during school, there's only one way in."
Francine Zaragoza, who was picking up three young students from school Monday afternoon, wanted to see a police presence throughout the day.
"I think it would not only help protect children from people with guns, but also bullying," she said. "I would feel better."
But after years of shrinking school district budgets, any sort of security is expensive: The Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District spends about $1 million on security, which includes security cameras and a single SRO.
"Security plans can always improve, but frankly, some of it comes down to funding," Superintendent Sherry Kendrick said Monday. The district cut a second SRO several years ago, at the same time as they laid off more than 50 teachers. But YCJUSD works closely with local police - including a meeting with local officials on Tuesday morning - and look for ways to improve security.
"Many of our schools had different lockdown plans, and we wanted them all to be the same, so we've been working with them this year" on that, Kendrick said.
Although the YCJUSD's security officers have never had to deal with anything like the incident in Sandy Hook, the superintendent credits them with helping making campuses safer.
"What they do is have a presence with the students, so that the students trust the police, and will report things," Kendrick said. "Safety is more than a potential gunman wanting to hurt kids. It's people selling drugs, abuse. And that's really where (the SROs) help us the most."
Former Hesperia Unified school board president Chris Bentley is skeptical about the high cost of a school police department.
"At its height, (the department cost the district) about $1.3 million a year," he said. That figure included six officers, cars, support staff and a contract with an additional security company that patrols schools at night. "LaPierre believes that a police officer at every site is going to secure a school campus. I don't believe so, unless you put it 30 feet down, with only one entrance."
A Marine Corps veteran, Bentley is pro-guns himself, he said, but doesn't think armed guards are effective or cost-effective for school districts. Bentley lost his bid for reelection in November, after more than a year of public feuding with the district's former police chief.
"I don't like guns on campus," he said. "It doesn't make me feel safer. It doesn't make me feel my children are safer."
Bentley pointed to the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
On the day of the incident, a Jefferson County Sheriff's Department was on-site at Columbine High School shooting in Colorado as a full-time school resource officer. Deputy Neil Gardner exchanged gunfire with shooter Dylan Harris within five minutes of the beginning of Harris and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold's shooting rampage. Neither Gardner nor Harris hit each other during their exchange. Thirteen people were killed in the students' rampage, and 24 were wounded, including three injured trying to escape the building. Harris and Klebold committed suicide around the time a SWAT team entered the high school.
"I don't think it's a deterrence in any way, shape or form," Bentley said.
Today, the Jefferson County Public School District still doesn't have its own police force.
Staffing up the HUSD to LaPierre's call for one armed guard per American school, would cost the HUSD about $5.2 million, Bentley estimated, after factoring in extra officers (including back-ups for when officers have to appear in court), and staff. That's comparable to what the district pays on busing or every sports program in the district combined.
"We're still in a zero-sum game. Every dollar has to come from somewhere."
Striking the balance remains the challenge.
"You don't want kids to feel like they're in a prison, but at the same time, you want them to feel safe," Kendrick said.
Reach Beau at via email, call him at 909-483-9376, or find him on Twitter @InlandED.