Michael Strutt, superintendent of Butler, Pennsylvania, schools, took an extraordinary step last weekend to protect the district's 7,500 children: securing a court order letting him place armed retired state troopers in every school.
The measure will cost Butler, a community including steelworkers and farmers, about $200,000 a year, even as the school system has cut teachers and administrators.
After the Dec. 14 Newtown, Conn., school massacre, districts across the country are revisiting the need for armed police. Few are taking steps as dramatic as Butler, though many are asking police to step up patrols or shifting existing officers to guard younger children.
"I could never forgive myself if something happened in our schools and I didn't take every measure I could to prevent it," Strutt said in a telephone interview.
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 first-graders and adults, at least two dozen school districts or law enforcement agencies have asked the National Association of School Resource Officers, which represents school-based police, about heightening security.
Each officer on average will cost about $80,000 annually, including benefits and equipment, said Mo Canady, executive director of the group, based in Hoover, Ala.
"Communities will have to figure out what's important to them," Canady said in a telephone interview.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, called Friday for Congress to fund armed guards in every school. The U.S. has about 99,000 public elementary, middle and high schools.
Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, said he isn't sold on that idea.
"I don't necessarily think having armed guards outside of every classroom is the most conducive thing to a good educational environment," he said Friday in Newark. "We don't want to make this an armed camp."
In an email Thursday, Daren Briscoe, a U.S. Education Department spokesman, called preventing such violence "a complex problem with no simple solution."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Vice President Joseph Biden, part of a group President Barack Obama convened to respond to the shooting, will evaluate "a wide array of ideas," said Briscoe, who declined to comment on whether the federal government would provide money for school security.
In 2009, the latest year available, 68 percent of schools had security guards or assigned police officers, up from 54 percent in 1999, according to an Education Department survey of students, 12- to 18-years old.
More than 90 percent of schools had locked or monitored doors during school hours, the government said. About 1 percent required students to pass through metal detectors.
Elementary schools are less likely than high schools or middle schools to have police on their grounds, principals, trade groups and safety experts said.
Schools in Atlanta; Los Angeles; Denver; Tampa, Fla.; Birmingham, Ala.; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Sacramento, Calif., have armed security such as police officers for at least some schools, according to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents the 67 largest systems. Not all districts responded.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second-biggest system, has armed police officers at high schools, as well as some middle schools, said spokeswoman Ellen Morgan. Many middle schools have unarmed school safety officers, as well. Elementary schools don't have officers, and police are now stepping up patrols, Morgan said.
The New York City system, the nation's largest, has unarmed school-safety officers from the police department in every school, said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman.
The Butler Area School District, 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, spends about $500,000 a year on security, including metal detectors at each school.
For about 10 years, Butler has had two or three unarmed retired state troopers in each of its three high school and junior high schools. Its 11 elementary schools had security guards.
On Dec. 10, four days before the shooting, the school board voted to arm all the officers. Without the court order the transition could have taken months. The district now plans to redistribute the retired officers, so each elementary school has one.
Butler hasn't had a school shooting, Strutt said, and killings at U.S. schools are rare. In the 2009-2010 year, 17 children ages 5 to 18 died in homicides at school, traveling to or from campuses or at school events, according to the Education Department. That's about half the annual figure during much of the 1990s. In a population of more than 50 million students, the school-related death toll has been about 1 percent of all homicides for that age group.
"Children are safer in schools than in almost any other place, including for some, their own homes," according to a statement this week signed by nine violence-prevention researchers from U.S. universities and the American Institutes for Research, the Washington-based social-science research organization.
Rather than intensify school security, the U.S. should improve access to mental-health care, reduce exposure to violent media and control guns, the researchers said.
"We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses," they said.
Two previous killings, in particular, led to the current round of safety measures in public schools. At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two students in 1999 killed 12 classmates and a teacher. A decade earlier, at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, a gunman murdered five students.
At Sandy Hook school in Newtown, the heavily armed, 20- year-old gunman, Adam Lanza, forced his way in, authorities said. He shot through glass to enter, said Maryann Jacob, an assistant librarian. He also killed his mother at their home.
After Columbine, schools used police officers and counselors to identify internal threats from other students, said Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. Now, school boards across the country will focus on identifying ways to protect kids from external danger, he said.
Boone County, Ky., shows the challenge districts face as they reassess security.
The district spends about $600,000 a year for nine school- based sheriff's deputies who protect 23 schools. An officer guards every high school and middle school — though not each elementary school. Officers carry a Glock .40-caliber pistol, as well as a Taser.
The fast-growing suburban district of 20,000 students, near Cincinnati, added officers after averting a school shooting in 1994.
Then, a 17-year-old student shot to death his father, mother and two sisters at home and drove to school, holding a class hostage. An assistant principal talked the child out of the gun.
The district doesn't have the money to add officers to all its buildings, said Randy Poe, superintendent of Boone County Schools. For now, Boone is considering shifting more officers' time to elementary schools.
"It's a new day," Poe said. "You have to think differently here."
--With assistance by Terrence Dopp in Newark.