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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


Guam Schools Consider Armed Security On Campuses
School resource officers currently equipped with handcuffs

By Dance Aoki

HAGTA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 23, 2013) – Informal surveys indicate that students and staff on Guam feel safer because of the presence of school resource officers (SRO), however the debate about providing the officers with firearms continues.

Some school administrators said they see the need for the officers to carry firearms on campus.

"I'm not speaking on behalf of my administration," said Melvin Finona, assistant principal of Simon Sanchez High School, who oversees the resource officers. "It is my personal opinion they should be armed for security's sake."

Luz Annette Payumo, assistant principal of George Washington High School, would like to change the policy that keeps school resource officers unarmed.

"With all of the shootings that have happened in the United States, Guam is fortunate that it hasn't happened here yet; but we also have to be cognizant that anything that happens there always shuffles on down this way," Payumo said.

On Dec. 14, a lone gunman in Newtown, Conn., forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, fatally shooting 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his weapon on himself. The gunman also shot his mother earlier that day.

Currently, Guam school resource officers are equipped with handcuffs.

The officers are trained to perform three overarching responsibilities. The most immediate of their duties is that of law enforcement. Their roles as law educators and informal counselors act as deterrents to crime before it begins.

Christopher Anderson, administrator of the Student Support Services division of the Department of Education, said that his goal for the program is for the officers to be so effective at providing law-related education and informal counseling to students and staff that the need for law enforcement at schools will diminish.

"If a school is healthy, then the SRO will spend most of their time in education," Andersen said. "If they are spending less time on processing, they will have more time to spend in class and on informal counseling."

The original plan was for the officers to be armed while on duty.

But in 2011, Chief Justice F. Philip Carbullido wrote letters to Speaker Judith Won Pat and Chris Anderson, Student Support Services Division administrator with the Guam Department of Education, stating he wouldn't authorize the use of firearms by the school resource officers while on public school campuses.

He wrote that the authority to carry firearms while on public school campuses is fundamentally a policy issue that should be decided by the Guam Education Board and the Guam Legislature.

"Therefore, I will not authorize the use of firearms by these court personnel while on the campuses of the public schools until such time that I receive an explicit request by the Guam Education Board and the superintendent notifying me of an affirmative policy to do so," he wrote in the letter to Won Pat.

Law enforcement

Thus far the officers have been able to support an understaffed administration in efforts to curb incidents of fighting, bullying and contraband brought into school.

At George Washington High School, there are five administrators and 12 school aides to monitor the campus where approximately 2,700 students go to school. Schools have had to stretch their resources to manage disciplinary issues.

Both Payumo and Finona noted that the presence of school resource officers has acted as a deterrent against infractions. Additionally, the administrators have access to a trained officer on the ground that is able to handle situations appropriately when they occur.

Payumo said the school resource officers have been particularly effective in breaking up incidents of bullying and contraband.

Education

The school resource officers give in-class presentations to students about the law and are available to answer questions.

Additionally, administrators said, students have a heightened awareness of what law enforcement officers do and develop a positive rapport with school resource officers on campus.

"The kids are going to want to ask questions," Finona said. "They have the ability to communicate what they're here for."

"Guam is not unique in not having a positive perception of law enforcement," Anderson said. The presence of school resource officers on campus is an attempt to improve this perception.

Informal counseling

Joleen Respicio, project manager of the Programan Inagofli'e' program at the Judiciary, which oversees the school resource officers in partnership with the education department, said students have been asking the officers questions about legal matters, even if they haven't committed any violations.

Staff have been able to utilize the knowledge of the officers to develop their own strategies for managing small infractions.

Southern High School Principal Rosalin Meeks said the school resource officers are excellent assets. Meeks wouldn't say whether she supports having armed school resource officers on campus, but said her administration will adhere to the laws that exist in terms of providing the resource officers with firearms.

No regrets

Asherdee Rosete, assistant principal of John F. Kennedy High School, is able to see both sides of the debate.

"The bottom line is we want families, children and officers to be safe," Rosete said.

She added that the administration understands the perception that if someone on campus is armed, it would be a considerable danger to the students.

However, if the school resource officers were adequately trained to operate a firearm and it was a part of their duty -- as it would be for a police officer -- the administration wouldn't expect them to relinquish their weapons.

"We don't want to look back and say, 'hagas mohon,'" Finona said. "If only they were armed."

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