STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Gun legislation moving through Congress faced a setback yesterday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would remove a proposed assault weapons ban - not that surprising, really. Reid says he wants to improve the chances of the overall package actually passing.
Gun control became a central issue after 20 children were shot last December in Newtown, Connecticut. The tragedy also touched off debate about school security. NRA Chief Wayne LaPierre famously advocated an armed guard in every school. Fact is, many schools already have armed police officers. Some districts have their own police forces. One such district is in Stockton, California, a city with its own experience of a school massacre.
NPR's Richard Gonzales has this report.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The police car radio crackles with a dispatch for Officer 123.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One-twenty-three...
GONZALES: One-twenty-three is officer Myra Franco, a five-year veteran of the Stockton Unified School District Police Force.
OFFICER MYRA FRANCO: One-twenty-three. Do we know if any weapons are involved?
GONZALES: Franco's black-and-white is speeding towards Cleveland Elementary School. It's already on lockdown because the city police are looking for an armed suspect who was last seen a couple of blocks from the campus.
FRANCO: The description we have is a black male, around 25 years of age, wearing a black hoodie and some black sweats. So we're going to keep our eyes, like, on the lookout for him. But our primary focus is to make sure that the campus is safe.
GONZALES: Coincidentally, Cleveland Elementary was the site of one of America's first school massacres back in 1989. A young white supremacist, with a criminal history, opened fire, killing five children and wounding 30, including a teacher. The victims were primarily Southeast Asian refugees.
Now, as Franco drives up...
(SOUNDBITE OF A CAR DOOR)
GONZALES: ...and gets out of her car, the campus is completely silent. Doors locked, lights out, no one is moving around outside. The only potential hiding place is a bathroom. Franco and another officer both draw their weapons.
FRANCO: Anybody in the bathroom?
GONZALES: Both officers move cautiously inside the bathroom, where they check each and every stall.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
GONZALES: They find no one inside. And after a few more tense minutes, Franco appears to relax.
FRANCO: So the campus is clear, which is a good thing.
GONZALES: A few minutes later, Franco's boss, Stockton School Police Chief Jim West, arrives to get briefed on the situation.
CHIEF JIM WEST: So everything is secure, and we're on lockdown...
WEST: ...until SPD says we're clear.
WEST: All right. Why didn't you guys get back over to Stagg.
FRANCO: All right.
WEST: I'll stay here.
GONZALES: Franco and West belong to a department of 20 police officers. It was originally established not long after the 1989 massacre here at Cleveland Elementary. Today, the department keeps an eye on 54 K-12 school campuses, in a city that is ranked per capita as one of the most violent in the country.
But protecting schools from external threats, like an active school shooter, is only part of the job. Back at his office, West says much more of their time is spent protecting the students from each other.
WEST: What you see here is a collection over a span of many years that are examples of some of the contraband that we've confiscated.
GONZALES: West is pointing to a glass display case outside of his office.
WEST: There are knives, guns, gang paraphernalia...
GONZALES: West says that about three years ago, the district began assigning what he calls school resource officers to the high schools, and he saw an immediate payoff. At one school, says West, violent incidents between students dropped by more than half.
WEST: 'Cause, you know, from our perspective the best crime is the one that never happens. So we're constantly trying to get information from children that will help us prevent the fight, prevent any tragedies. And the way you that, of course, is by creating relationships with them. And Myra is one of our officers who does that very well.
GONZALES: Myra Franco wears a bulletproof vest under her blue uniform, a side arm at her right hip. She's a street savvy Stockton native, an experience that seems to come in handy at her regular beat at A.A. Stagg High School.
FRANCO: How's it going?
GONZALES: As Franco walks around the campus at the lunch hour, she jokes that if there are going to be any fights at school today, they'll happen at lunch. However, the mood today is light. Many students seem not to notice her at all. But several groups of students do approach her, some with small talk, others with tidbits of information about tensions on and off campus.
FRANCO: What I kind of try to do is not lecture them but try to talk to them more as, you know, at their level so that they can understand more like why they shouldn't be doing the things they do, you know.
GONZALES: So you're like a mentor to these?
FRANCO: Yes. Yes. (unintelligible) I get. The way I see it's like they're all my kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONZALES: Franco says one advantage she has is the fact that students know that she'll be on campus every day.
FRANCO: So they think twice before they do something because they're like, what's Franco going to tell me? 'Cause they know I will get on them.
GONZALES: Just last January, Stagg High was locked down after a report that a student had brought a gun on campus.
MIMI GONZALES: And we had to stay in class and stay under the tables for about three hours.
GONZALES: The gun was never found but senior Mimi Gonzales says just knowing that Franco was around had a calming effect.
So do you think it makes a difference to have her around?
GONZALES: Yeah, I think it does. Like, if there are fights or something and people will be a little more safe and want to fight 'cause she's here. And that she'll probably stop the violence from going on. Or if someone tries to bring a gun or anything, they'll stop it.
GONZALES: A moment later, another student approaches Franco. She appears upset, clutching her books across her chest and speaks barely above a whisper. But after a few minutes, Franco explains what's happening.
FRANCO: She's saying that yesterday when she was walking home, she saw two students from Stagg High school, who are a couple, the male was beating the female. So we're looking at a potential domestic violence incident.
GONZALES: Less than 15 minutes later, the alleged female victim is summoned to her counselor's office to talk with Franco and a health specialist. The details of their conversation were private. But Franco and the other school officials learned that the girl and her boyfriend did have a violent fight. The girl is checked for bruises but she has none. After the girl returns to her class, Franco and the other school officials agree that they will need to make plan for an intervention.
As we walked out of that meeting, Franco stops to reflect on what has just happened. A student trusted her enough to tip her off about a case of domestic violence.
So is that pretty common that someone will come up to you and just say, hey, I got to tell you about something?
FRANCO: Yes. And I don't know if it's something, because I grew up in Stockton. I guess you can say I can talk like people in Stockton do. So for some reason, a lot of people come up to me and they just want to tell me stuff.
FRANCO: But it happens quite often, actually.
GONZALES: Franco says she's sure that her squad car, parked in front of the school, discourages any outsider who wants to come on campus with the intent of doing harm. But she's quick to add that having the trust of everyone inside the school is just as important to her.
Richard Gonzales NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.