Pittsburgh Public Schools consider arming school police

Oct. 2, 2018,

Pittsburgh Public Schools are exploring a possible policy change that would allow school police officers to carry guns.

Pittsburgh Public Schools police Chief George Brown told the board Monday that officers need guns to do their jobs. He added that they’ve been trained to work with all students and to de-escalate conflicts.

“We live it; we don’t talk about it,” Brown said. “But there’s going to come a time when we’ll need to reach for our hip to maintain the safety of these kids. Because everyone can sit around and say right now, ‘School police doesn’t need guns.’ But when it happens, it’s going to be, why didn’t they have those guns? And it’s not to kill kids. It has nothing to do with killing our babies. It’s about saving our babies.”

The policy in question currently does not authorize school police to carry guns.

The district’s board of directors policy committee met Monday to discuss the policy change and to hear from those advocating for both sides of the issue.

Students like 17-year-old Khalil Hauser, an 11th-grader at the district’s Perry High School, wondered why administrators and the board would consider changing a policy that seems to be working fine. Hauser sits on the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council and will take his recommendations to the superintendent this month.

“I think a lot of students will be upset by it; they’ll feel threatened,” Hauser said. Instead, he’d like to see officers receive more training around working with students that would include de-escalating conflicts as well as building relationships with students.

Pittsburgh school police officers are sworn officers and have received firearms training, Brown said. He’s concerned about threats from the outside coming into school buildings and told the board that though weapons are typically not found inside school buildings, they have been recovered from areas surrounding schools.

In addition, Brown argued that working without a firearm hinders the ability of school police to respond to an incident taking place outside or near a school building, such as at a football game.

“If there’s a situation that goes down where there could be a very dangerous situation with an individual with a firearm, then the school police actually becomes a liability for city officers, especially if we’re working outside events,” Brown said.

The discussion stemmed from a request to explore the policy change made by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers in 2015, Safety Committee Chair Terry Kennedy said. Pittsburgh Public Schools police officers are represented by the union.

“I still think that this was important, because it was out in the open,” Kennedy said of efforts to research a potential policy change.

Kim Stolfer, president of the pro-gun political action committee Firearms Owners Against Crime, based in Peters Township, also spoke on behalf of school police. He cited the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed, as an example of an incident when force should have been used to stop an active shooter. Video of the incident shows that a school resource officer responded, drew his gun, but did not enter the building or confront the shooter.

“I encourage you and implore you, please understand that the officers’ lives are important, as are the rest of the children that they protect,” Stolfer said. “And failing to do that could be a public relations disaster if something like Parkland happens here.”

Stolfer also referenced a 2014 stabbing at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, where 20 people injured. No one was killed and the attacker was stopped after being tackled by an assistant principal.

Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia, advised the board against changing the policy.

“What’s happening in a lot of school districts around the state and around the country is that there is a recognition that students of color, in particular African-American students and students with disabilities, are having much more contact with police,” Jordan said.

Districts he works with are looking at ways to examine why that’s happening and to reduce the negative interactions those students are having with police. This includes reviewing arrest data and questioning whether those incidents were truly a law enforcement matter.

“That’s the conversation that’s going on,” he said. “Not how you can add more weapons to schools as a solution to that. That’s what’s disturbing to me about this proposal.”

Jordan also advised that arming police officers would change the school environment for the students.

“That sends a very strong and a negative message to the students that somehow firearms are needed in terms of dealing with the kinds of everyday things that go on in schools,” Jordan said.

Though the meeting did not include a public comment period, groups representing parents and community members came out to show their disapproval of the policy change.

The public will have a chance to address the board during the public hearing at 6 p.m. Oct. 22. The board will vote on the policy change during a legislative meeting at 7 p.m. Oct. 24.

Ruth Howze, an organizer for the advocacy group One Pennsylvania and a parent of graduates from the district, said the practice of arming police officers goes against the district’s policies of restorative justice, which focus on mediation and peaceful reconciliation of conflicts.

“Armed police officers does not appear to fit into that equation,” Howze said. “Armed police officers are more traumatizing to their kids.”

Howze also expressed concerns that students of color and students with disabilities may be put at risk.

“Why is the school police so eager to move in this direction?” she said.

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