Armed officers will be patrolling Dallas campuses - but Rambo types need not apply. Stephen Phillips reports
Instead of detention or a letter home, Dallas pupils who get into scuffles may soon find themselves arrested by armed police.
The Texas city's education chiefs approved plans last week to deploy a dedicated 117-officer armed force, empowered to make on-the-spot arrests across Dallas's 218 schools.
All schools, including primaries, will be assigned officers from the private force.
Officials said the new cadre, to be phased in from the start of the 2003-4 year in September, will plug shortcomings in school security. Currently this includes 84 security guards and 31 Dallas police officers who patrol school perimeters.
Officials say police will have freedom to act in a way that school staff cannot. "If they are breaking up off-campus scuffles, current officials can't make arrests," explained Ken Zornes, president of Dallas schools'
board of trustees, which voted 7-2 to enlist the new force. He added that a dedicated force was needed as city officers delegated to schools were sometimes called away to other incidents.
But critics fear the new force could be heavy-handed and encroach into areas more properly dealt with by staff. "We could have problems with incidents of a normal nature that should be handled by the principal being handled by police, with charges and arrests," said board trustee Hollis Brashear, who opposed the measure.
Mr Brashear said police must be trained to be sensitive. "We mustn't get the 'Rambo' types," he said. He branded the $8.5 million-a-year (pound;5.5m) scheme a misplaced priority when Dallas schools have a $42m budget shortfall.
But Mr Zornes said that school police would only intervene where crimes were committed. Officers would be drawn from the ranks of existing security staff as well as from serving police officers.
Recruits "will have special training to deal with youngsters in a school setting", he added.
In the wake of the 1999 massacre of 12 pupils and a teacher by two classmates at Denver's Columbine high school, education authorities across America have increasingly drafted in armed police to protect pupils and teachers.
US secondary students were victims of roughly 1.9 million crimes of violence and theft at school in 2000, including some 128,000 serious crimes such as rape and aggravated assault, according to a recent US education department report.
As of last week, 5,843 police officers were stationed at schools by local forces under the government's "Cops in School" programme.
A US justice department spokesman said officers were primarily there as a deterrent, but were also role models, who promote "respect between law enforcement and students".
A spokesman for Texas's State Teachers Association expressed mixed feelings about the police presence. "It's a private police force - setting up a potential confrontational situation with students and teachers." However, he added, safety was paramount.