Should schools have armed guards?
The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado spurred proposals all across the country to put armed guards in schools.
After the two young, heavily armed gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded nearly two dozen more individuals, the call went out to put firepower in American schools to help prevent another such atrocity.
A national debate ensued, one that continues to this day, about the desirability and effectiveness of armed guards in schools.
In the wake of Columbine, a minority of schools opted to bring in weapon-bearing guards -- in many cases, professional school resource officers who worked with students in addition to providing security -- and the federal government helped bankroll some of those new positions.
A majority of school districts did not hire armed guards.
In a lot of those districts, questions were raised about whether guards actually make schools safer, especially since there was an armed guard on the Columbine campus and another right nearby when that massacre occurred.
Questions were also raised about whether it is a good idea to mix students and guns, and in some cases taxpayers objected to paying the freight for additional positions.
There have been nearly three dozen mass shootings in the United States since Columbine, including the murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, but most schools have continued to operate without armed guards.
But then the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown occurred.
The horrific slaughter of 20 innocent first-graders and six heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 immediately moved the issue of armed guards to the front burner.
School districts nationwide are talking about school security and armed officers, and many have already taken action.
The issue is, naturally, most intense in Newtown and, to a slightly lesser degree, in its neighboring communities in the New Milford area. Many students, parents and educators are frightened following the horrors of Dec. 14, and they want the assurance there is an armed line of defense in their school.
School districts throughout the area have understandably and appropriately stepped up a law enforcement presence in and around their schools, at least for the short term.
New Milford-area school districts have taken steps or made plans to bring about design changes like double-door entrances, bulletproof or wire-mesh windows, improved lock systems and more surveillance cameras.
Area school districts have reviewed or will soon review their emergency plans and will conduct more drills.
All of those steps are logical and have virtually universal support.
There is still much debate about armed guards, however, ranging from those who think there simply should not be guns in the schools to the National Rifle Association's position that the best way to counter gun violence is to introduce more guns to school campuses.
It is likely, following the many studies being done at both the state and federal level, there will be some recommendations or even mandates to enhance school security.
It is almost certain the question of armed guards in the schools will be decided on a local basis, as it should be.
Many parents in Newtown want to have armed guards in all the town's schools, and it is likely that will happen.
There are parents in several other area towns, including the city of Danbury, who are calling for an increase in the number of armed guards at their high school and the extension of armed coverage to all schools in their district.
And then there are the local school districts that do not have armed officers in the schools and have no announced plans to add them.
Ultimately, in an effort to create a game plan that feels right, each community and each school district will need to answer a number of key questions:
Do guns belong in schools?
What is the impact on young people -- positive and negative -- of having armed guards in their place of education?
Has the Sandy Hook tragedy changed the equation at all on those related issues?
What is the best way to protect students and staff without turning schools into armed fortresses?
How valuable is the presence of an armed officer for the comfort and security of students and staff?
How effective might an armed guard be in preventing a massacre like the ones that happened at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, or in reducing the carnage?
How many armed guards might be needed to truly constitute an effective deterrent?
How much would it cost to hire enough well-trained, professional, armed guards -- at an estimated $100,000 per officer for salary and benefits -- to provide such an effective deterrent?
While pretty much everyone would agree you can't put a price tag on the safety of our children, there remains the question of who would pay for armed guards -- the federal government? the state? the town? the school district?
If the tab winds up being paid locally, would taxpayers support the simple addition of that amount of funding in the town and/or school budget?
If not, who or what would get cut?
Would teachers and programs be sacrificed in an effort to enhance security?
Some of these are difficult questions to answer, and each issue is certainly open to debate.
Sadly, in a world in which mass shootings occur with depressing regularity, they are questions that need to be answered.
Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The Greater New Milford Specrum. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.