Districts differ on police using Tasers in schools
June 14, 2009 4:00 AM
No one is sure just how many officers carry Tasers into schools in Pennsylvania.
By Eleanor Chute and Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This much is in agreement: A police officer recently used a Taser device to subdue a student at Penn Hills High School.
But there's little agreement across the nation on whether police officers assigned to schools should carry the electronic control devices and when they should use them.
No one compiles statistics on how many officers carry Tasers or how often they are used in Pennsylvania schools, although officers typically file a report with their local departments when they discharge them.
But Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton, whose department twice this school year has handled incidents in which a Taser was used at the high school, said barring police from carrying the devices in school is "kind of foolish.
"You're limiting yourself. The Taser is out there," he said. "It's a nonlethal weapon. I think it can be used. I think it's an alternative."
The electronic device can be used two ways. In one, the officer fires a cartridge containing two electrically charged probes from a distance of up to 35 feet, sending a signal through the target's nervous system that causes pain and muscle contractions.
In the other, the Taser is used like a stun gun. The cartridge is removed and the device is used directly on the body in a "drive stun," resulting in localized pain but not neuromuscular incapacitation. A Penn Hills officer used a Taser that way twice during a confrontation with a student on June 4.
Across the state, 228 police officers have reported carrying weapons while working in 113 school districts, five vocational-technical schools, two charter schools, one alternative school and one intermediate unit.
But there are no figures showing how many officers carry the electronic control devices in particular, according to the state Department of Education. The list is missing some police officers, including city police in Philadelphia high schools and off-duty police in Penn Hills middle and high schools.
Typically, officers carry into schools whatever tools -- including guns and Taser devices -- are issued and approved by their own police departments.
The manufacturer and other advocates of the device have touted its use as a safe alternative to deadly force. Civil rights and other groups, however, have criticized its use in some cases, pointing to incidents in which people have died after being shocked with a Taser.
In the past, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials have rejected the idea of allowing school police officers to carry guns. Administrators haven't approached the board about Taser devices, but board member Floyd "Skip" McCrea said he believes most of his colleagues would be against them, too.
Mr. McCrea acknowledged that some students have reached adult size and are quite strong.
"But they're still kids. I don't think it's right," he said, adding, "There has to be a better way."
Pittsburgh Public Schools police Chief Robert Fadzen, however, said he would like his officers to carry the same weapons that city officers do, including firearms and Taser devices. His officers have completed the same training as municipal police -- security officers or aides have less -- and that training emphasizes that officers should use the least force possible to resolve a threat.
"Your first weapon is your mouth," he said. "You engage in verbal judo. You try to de-escalate situations with your words."
In Philadelphia, school district police do not have Taser devices. But a Philadelphia city police officer who carries a gun and, in some cases if they are trained, a Taser device is assigned to each high school.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based national consulting firm specializing in school security, said it makes sense for trained police officers to carry Taser devices in school.
On his Web site, Mr. Trump notes what he describes as a few inappropriate uses on juveniles -- such as an officer who complied when several students asked for a jolt and another who woke up a student sleeping in class.
But he said those officers do not characterize the "vast majority." He also lists cases in which Taser devices were used to subdue violent assailants in schools.
"Parents have to understand that police officers assigned to schools are not just zapping students for not having a hall pass or standing around on a cell phone," said Mr. Trump in an interview.
"When the Taser is used, it is generally used with an escalation of physical assaulted behavior and physical resistance of an arrest," he said. "If you take away the tools those officers otherwise have out on the street, you potentially create a less safe situation, not only for the officer but for the people he or she is there to protect."
Kevin Quinn, a police officer and a spokesman for the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he sees the Taser as a way to reduce injuries to officers and civilians. School resource officers are based in schools to get to know students, deter and handle criminal matters, and speak in classes on safety and other issues. In Pennsylvania, 89 districts and four vocational-technical schools have school resource officers.
Officer Quinn said he carries a Taser at a Chandler, Ariz., high school but has never used it in his six years there. He said he doesn't hear of many incidents in which the device is used on students.
"When it does happen, it's pretty newsworthy," he said. "I hear about it less than once a month, and I'm talking nationally. It may be going on more often."
The American Civil Liberties Union occasionally has raised questions about the use of Tasers in some cases, but isn't opposed to all uses.
But Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said, "I think there really needs to be a heavy standard for using Tasers in school.
"I don't think you can say it's never appropriate, just like it's hard to say it's never appropriate for law enforcement. But boy, circumstances better be really powerful to justify using a Taser," said Mr. Walczak, who is not involved in the Penn Hills incidents.
According to Chief Burton, the June 4 incident at Penn Hills began when a student, who is more than 6 feet tall, refused to get off a phone and go to class when asked three times by police Officer Dennis Lynch.
The officer, without using force, put his hand on the student's shoulder, the chief said. The student shoved him, and the officer told him he was under arrest. The student argued, screamed loudly, refused to turn around to be handcuffed and lunged at the officer, the chief said.
The officer used his Taser to inflict a drive stun to the student's arm, but it had no effect, Chief Burton said. The student continued to resist, he said, and the officer tried another drive stun, this time to the student's torso. The student then tried to grab the Taser, and the officer secured it, the chief said.
With help from a school administrator and a security guard, the student was handcuffed but freed one arm, Chief Burton said. He was handcuffed again and taken outside.
By then, the chief said, three other police officers had arrived. The student ran, but was grabbed by police who sat on his legs to stop him from kicking. The officers said he appeared to be passing out, so they took off the handcuffs and called paramedics, the chief said.
He was taken to the hospital and appeared fine when he appeared in a television report that night, Chief Burton said. Officer Lynch had a swollen face after the incident, and Officer Jeffrey Agreen was kicked in the groin and shins, the chief said.
Charges filed against the student include two felonies: two counts of aggravated assault against police officers and one count of disarming a law enforcement officer.
The student could not be reached, but in a television interview, he disputed the police account of events. Based on his viewing of video recorded by a security camera inside the school, Penn Hills Superintendent Joseph Carroll called the student "recalcitrant."
Dr. Carroll said an officer also used a Taser on a high school student in an incident earlier this school year. He said that student was "totally out of control" and had been involved in fights with other students that day.
Officials at local school districts that have trained police officers in their buildings, including at least some with guns and Taser devices, said the officers' presence helps to maintain order, build rapport and educate students about safety and other matters.
Among them is Dr. Carroll, who said off-duty police officers working in the high and middle schools have been "extremely helpful."