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Fontana school district arms with semi-automatic rifles

Fontana Unified School District police recently purchased Colt Model 6940 semi-automatic rifles to keep on campus during the day for use in the event of a Sandy Hook-style shooting.
Fontana Unified School District police recently purchased Colt Model 6940 semi-automatic rifles to keep on campus during the day for use in the event of a Sandy Hook-style shooting.
Chris Richard/KQED

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For weeks, Americans of all sorts have been embroiled in a national debate about gun control. But in Sacramento last week, a group of Republican state lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow school districts to use education funds for training school staff on gun use. And now, a school district in the Southern California city of Fontana is already arming its police with semiautomatic rifles. Reporter Chris Richard has the story.

Trying to forestall another massacre like the December shooting rampage at Sandy Hook, school police in the Southern California city of Fontana have armed themselves with semi-automatic rifles.

The weapons are similar to military assault rifles. Officers will keep the guns in safes on campus. School police Chief Billy Green says he's simply giving his officers what they may need one day.

"If I did not take this action now and if there was a tragic event at one of our school sites, the questions you would be asking me now would likely be along the lines of,  'Why didn't you plan to defend our kids from something like this happening?'" he said.

Green says ordinary pistols aren't a match for the weapons used in recent shootings. He says the new rifles will allow his officers to fire more accurately, from farther away, and the bullets will pierce body armor.

Some other school districts have quietly purchased similar guns for emergency use. Fontana's policy is unique in that officers will take their Colt Model 6940s to work every day, storing them in safes on campus during their shifts.

"A gun in the safe at police headquarters does little good to a school 20 miles during the event of an active shooter," Green said.

But Fontana parent Amanda Rude fears the same weapons that are so readily available to officers could fall into the wrong hands. Her 10-year-old son is scared, and Rude stopped by school district headquarters Monday to file a formal complaint.

"Their learning environment, then, has to be effected, if you're nervous about these things being on your campus," she said. She gave a little laugh, the shocked laugh of someone who's appalled at what she's saying. "A 10-year-old should not have to worry about, getting, you know, shot down."

At dismissal time at Fontana High School across the street from district headquarters, students questioned the need for more guns. Sixteen-year-old sophomore Adan Lopez says some of his textbooks are worn out, tagged with gang graffiti and missing pages.

"They're good with the guns they have right now," he said. "You know, like, my opinion is we need, like, pencils! We don't have enough pencils, we don't have enough sharpeners, paper!"

People who study trends in school safety say that as frightening as events like the Sandy Hook attack are, they need to be understood within a broader context. National Center for Education Statistics figures show on-campus violent crime has fallen steadily since 1993. Buying the guns didn't come before the school board because it was a small expenditure. But school Trustee Leticia Garcia worries that the easy availability of overwhelming force could preclude a measured response and spin violence out of control.

"We're talking about some, in some cases kids that make really poor choices, that could bring plastic toy weapons to school, that look very real," she said. "That could possibly get them ...  hurt."

Ron Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work and Rossier School of Education,  questions Fontana officials' focus on an armed intruder. He suggests they take a closer look at the data, like the yearly California School Climate Survey.

"If you look at these surveys of what kids are saying, they're kind of the rumbling before the earthquake," he said.

Last year, roughly 6 percent of Fontana's seventh, ninth and 11th graders reported bringing a gun to school. More than a quarter said they'd seen another student with a weapon, and one in 10 said they'd been threatened.

Those survey results match what kids are reporting throughout the state. California State Sacramento psychology professor Stephen Brock, a nationally recognized expert on preparing for school emergencies, says the best way to respond is better communication.

"Unless you're gonna make schools into a prison, well, you know what, even if you do make schools into a prison, you're not going to prevent all acts of violence," he said. "We need to strike a balance between physical and psychological safety."

USC's Ron Astor favors a community-based policing response. "Talk to any of these police officers. They're going to tell you getting to know people in a relationship way is far more powerful than having another assault weapon," he said.

Fontana School Board President Gus Hawthorn acknowledges the odds are low anybody will attack his kids.

"That's not a guarantee," he said. "And I'm committed to keeping those weapons in a place where officers can get to them if there ever was a tragedy like that and we hope there never will be, that we would be able to stop it with those firearms."

School trustee Leticia Garcia has called for a conversation about preventing violence, beginning with a public hearing next week on whether to keep the new guns.