EDITORIAL: Some perspective on the Culver Academies security controversy

By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

Recently the social media feeds of some local folks filled with a South Bend-based media outlet's story on the fact that Culver Academies' security staff recently were relieved of the guns they had been carrying.

So to clear up one oft-repeated misnomer about the situation right off the bat: no, Culver Academies did not "advertise" or promote that news of its own volition. Instead, what I would argue was an irresponsible choice devoid of concern for the safety of the 800-plus students and hundreds more faculty and staff, was made by the larger, urban media's seizing the opportunity for a "hot" story.

The media, of course, has the right to run the story, but the old adage comes to mind about the thin line between free speech and yelling "FIre!" in a crowded theater. That's all the more true given the fact that Culver Academies is a private school and not a public entity or location, which makes a public "right to know" argument on the part of the media all the more dubious (I could launch into the question of whether the whole thing is a tempest in the proverbial teapot since it's not uncommon for secondary level prep schools -- as opposed to universities -- not to maintain armed security on their campuses, but I digress).

Having said that, however, I'd like to interject some context to the issue that I think also might suggest there's really not a measurable increase in risk as a result of the story being run (even if I maintain its handling was unfortunate on the part of the media).

Background

Some background: a 34-year Indiana State Police veteran (retired since 2010) named Rick Laymen contacted the media (The Culver Citizen included) earlier in the week to explain that he had resigned as a Culver Academies security officer, a post he started "this past year," he wrote, adding that he felt the working conditions had become "unsafe" due to the change in the school's policy regarding security officers carrying arms.

Culver Academies, he said, was issuing a collapsible baton and mace canister to replace the guns carried by security officers. In interviews with South Bend media, Laymen cited as partial evidence for his feelings, the fact that a police officer had been shot in South Bend within the past year, simply for being uniformed (I think many of us are puzzled as to why it isn't obvious that South Bend is an entirely different environment from Culver, Indiana, and the two aren't comparable in any way relevant to this situation).

In response to media inquiries, among other comments, Academies Strategic Communications director Bill Hargraves pointed out that its security force had only discharged its gun on campus once in the past 20 years, and that was to put down a rabid animal.

The question comes to mind: how many times, since the Academies began employing security officers in 1969 (and for the record, they have been armed from then until now), has an officer needed to pull a gun? Very, very few.

Perspective

I can anticipate the response from some: none of this means Academies Campus Security won't ever need to use guns in the future, which is true enough, though I'd argue that one of the only (perhaps the only, though obviously this is speculation on my part) scenarios likely to require the use of deadly force at a place like Culver Academies is that of an "active shooter" aiming to hit multiple people, a tragic situation which has played out at campuses across the US in the past decade or so.

Part of the problem here is one of perspective. Mr. Laymen, with his decades of formal police training, may well be a great candidate to be on campus, armed and ready to respond to an active shooter. But Culver Academies, I'd wager (and I didn't ask them) probably sees it as a better use of their time to focus less on ensuring formal police training for their officers, than to seek security personnel who are simultaneously detail-oriented and attentive, firm and decisive, but also able to work well with high school students and in an academic environment which is historically all but free of major crimes (certainly of violent ones), in a broader community where violent crime is all but nil (as an example of this, one couple from a larger community told me a few years ago that they chuckled when they saw the front-page Citizen story about change being stolen from people's parked cars -- a Culver crime wave!).

Because that's primarily who they're dealing with: not hardened criminals or active shooters, but high school kids whose worst offenses will almost certainly not merit gun use.

An inordinate amount of Campus Security's time, surely, is spent ensuring doors are locked, buildings secured, and students and staff are safely where they should be when they should be. And that's as it should be and it's an important and valued service. And, other than the fact that Security carried guns for the past several years, why is there no outrage that Culver Community High School, for example, lacks armed guards? After all, CCHS is not much further away from the Culver police station (or county sheriff's headquarters of State Police post) than the Academies campus, and no armed guards patrol its halls.

Yes, CCHS has a lock and security camera at the door, as most public schools do nowadays, but surely few people think that measure, in itself, is a great deterrent to an intelligent or determined shooter? Surely we're not so naive. So is the safety of CCHS students somehow less important than that of Academies students-, that we're not upset at the lack of gun-carrying officers at the community school? CCHS, like most other entities in the Culver area, relies on trained police officers who will come in, with reinforcements on the way, to the site of any such scenario within moments....which is what Culver Academies will rely on as well.

I spoke to Culver town marshal Wayne Bean about the matter in the wake of the media attention to it, and he told me he spoke earlier in the week to Culver Academies Head of Schools John Buxton.

"I told him we will do whatever we can to help," Bean said, "and I'm sure the county or state departments will do the same. If they need anything, we will be there to help if they want us."

In a statement released by Culver Academies, Hargraves said, "Our Security personnel are expected to be proactive in anticipating challenges to campus safety as well as identifying opportunities to enhance the safety of the students. If we were to have an emergency situation requiring the use of deadly force, we would want the police to provide that expertise, not our officers."

The ugly 'L' word

Here's the bottom line: the notion of Academies security being an armed wall between students (and staff) and armed, murderous bad guys, assumes every security officer is fully trained to do that...which assumes the school aims to put the deep resources needed into that training for them...which assumes such a use of time, energy, and money is warranted. Which to me seems a dubious proposal at best.

One of the points the law enforcement representatives I spoke with were adamant about is the way training and procedural requirements for police work have increased dramatically, and the radically increased liability (that ugly 'L' word most of us dislike) of arming anyone without that full, official, and legal training and certification can be.

Culver Academies has not discussed the liability side of the armed security matter with any media I know of, but it undoubtedly impacted their decision-making, as it should have. In a similar but different context, ask the

Culver EMS, for example, why they're struggling to secure volunteers: an astronomical increase in requisite training and testing has become all but impossible for the average working person who might otherwise volunteer. For better or for worse, the days are long gone when the many of the Campus Security officers so familiar to students, staff, faculty, and the broader community in years past could simply be brought in on the basis of their known character and expertise, even as capable, trustworthy, and beloved as many of them were (and Campus Security officers are today).

Many in Culver will recall a similar situation with our local Lake Patrol personnel. Many of us have fond memories of some of those officers who lacked formal training but were perfectly capable, and yet were removed from that force when it shifted to staffing only by formally trained and deputized members of the Marshall County Sheriff's Department. Similarly, shifts in what have become fairly standard approaches to safety and liability also change the way Culver Academies looks at lightning and thunder, noted Hargraves. Only as of more recent years has the school instituted a multi-layered system (utilizing telephone and Internet, among other resources) to communicate even the potential of hazardous weather approaching the campus -- all in the same of added safety for students and staff, and just one more indication of a much tighter approach across societal lines to safety. None of that took place 20 years ago, he points out, and no one then expected it to.

Not so today.

Probably the most compelling argument in favor of armed Campus Security is the 'active shooter' one, although as large as the Academies' properties are, I'm not sure it's safe to assume an armed Campus Security officer could make it to that situation, depending upon the context, any faster than local police officers (as an aside, I won't explore deeply here the fact that Culver does remain a partially military-oriented school, with plenty of weapons-trained folks on campus, should they be needed. My personal thoughts only, so take them as you will).

And the question remains: in our fear of the unlikely event of an active shooter scenario, to what extent are we willing to shift Culver (whether the Academies or elsewhere in the area) to a kind of locked-down high-security environment, every day, all year, forever in the future? That's a question Bill Hargraves posed rhetorically to me in our conversation last week -- where does it end? Barbed wire? Locked-down checkpoints at every turn? At what point have the "bad guys" won, when our lives become a veritable prison of our own fears?

I expect the specifics of how safety at the Academies campus plays out will be an evolving matter, but in the meantime I think the school found itself between a rock and a hard place -- one created in part by a broader media model that I believe unnecessarily placed story over safety.

Editor's note: An expanded version of this editorial ran in the Oct. 8 edition of The Culver Citizen. To subscribe to the print or e-edition (digital) version of the paper, visit  http://thepilotnews.com/subscriptions.

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