What can help curb school violence, more guns or more guidance counselors?

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While officials in Washington debate gun legislation, cities and counties are debating how they can make schools safer in the wake of the Newtown massacre. One question that arises is: should local school districts invest in armed guards or in services that may prevent violence in the first place?

Last month the small city of Fontana, in San Bernardino County, received a shipment of semi-automatic assault rifles. Those 14 guns at $1,000 a pop grabbed headlines, and some school board members are questioning the purchase.

Fontana High School/Photo by CBS News
Fontana High School/Photo by CBS News (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But back up two years to Feb 2011, when Fontana officials made a different decision that did not garner the same attention. At that time the district closed its entire guidance counselor program to save money, laying off or re-assigning sixty-eight school counselors who did more than just help students apply to college.

Nancy Jarman-Dunn was one of those counselors. “If there’s a student who’s maybe exhibiting symptoms outside of the box as a counselor I could sit down and talk with them and I could try to figure out if it’s something I can help with or maybe something I need to refer to a mental health professional,” she said.

Why, some critics ask, should Fontana Unified spend money on high-caliber rifles when there’s no funding for counseling services?

School Police Chief Billy Green has defended the purchase, pointing out the guns are similar to ones other districts like LAUSD keep stored in case of mass shootings. In a letter to parents Green dismissed critics saying that the $14,000 would hardly cover even one employee’s salary.

Fontana is not alone in cutting back on services. California’s schools are ranked dead last among other states when it comes to the ratio of counselors to students.

The Colt 6940, the guns purchased by Fontana High School. Photo by Sabre223/ar15.com
The Colt 6940, the guns purchased by Fontana High School. Photo by Sabre223/ar15.com (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The recommended ratio at the national level is 250 to 1,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. “For California we have the largest ratio in all the states and we average somewhere around 900 students to 1 counselor. In California we don’t have mandatory school counselor services so in comprehensive districts, in large districts some don’t have counselors at all, and haven’t for years.”

The debate over spending money on security or prevention is happening in Sacramento too.

State Sen. Ted Lieu said he thinks school districts should reconsider cuts they’ve made to counseling staff.

“I believe that should be changed, part of that was a funding issue but because of Prop. 30 passing our budget has been structurally stabilized with a projected surplus and schools are going to get fairly sizable increase from the year before and my hope is that districts will start to hire more guidance counselors,” Lieu said.

Lieu is pushing a bill that aims to give the state superintendent of public instruction the authority to withhold funding for any district that doesn’t comply with a broad safety plan.

But other lawmakers like Assemblyman Tim Donnelly want to focus on boosting the physical security of schools first.

“I have no idea whether having more guidance counselors in the school would make a difference, but I do know that we have a limited amount of money,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly has introduced a bill to allow districts to use general school dollars to train teachers, janitors and other employees how to use firearms.

“All this does is give a teacher who has to go to school everyday where someone might decide to go there and target their classroom, a fighting chance of self-defense and survival and the ability to defend their life and the lives of all those children,” he said.

Meanwhile, public opinion in California appears to favor counselors over guns. A study released last week by the California Endowment found that 84% of those polled support upping the number of trained counselors. But just 50% support putting armed police officers in every school.

While it may not be a one-or-the-other proposition, the two approaches continue to be debated hand in hand.

In Fontana tonight, the school board will convene a special meeting to hear from parents. On the agenda: both the recent purchase of those high-caliber rifles and the idea of bringing back the guidance counselors.