Retired state troopers hired to guard Butler Area schools

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Four hundred miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, a Pennsylvania school superintendent named Mike Strutt left a morning meeting Dec. 14 and decided to place his schools on "threat alert." He was concerned about a copycat attack on the day of the Connecticut shooting. But, as he read reports of the massacre, he started to worry more about something else.

For 20 years he had specialized in school safety, filling three binders with security plans and lockdown drills -- all of which felt suddenly inadequate. In the case of an attack, would a "threat alert" do him any good?

He looked out his office window at Western Pennsylvania's snow-covered trees and imagined a gunman approaching one of Butler Area School District's 14 schools, allowing the attack to unfold in his mind. In came the gunman past the unarmed guards Mr. Strutt had hired after Columbine; past the metal detectors he had installed after Virginia Tech; past the intercom and surveillance system he had updated after Aurora.

Mr. Strutt stood up from his desk and called Butler Area school board President Don Pringle. "This could happen here," Mr. Strutt said. "Armed guards are the one thing that gives us a fighting chance. Don't we want that one thing?"

That question has preoccupied schools across the nation since last month, when 27 people died in Newtown, Conn., and the emerging solutions reflect the nation's views on gun control. In a divided America, guns are either the problem or the solution, with little consensus in between. A dozen states have proposed legislation to put armed guards in schools; five others have drafted plans to disallow them officially.

Groups in Utah are training teachers to carry their own guns, Tennessee is hiring armed "security specialists" for $11.50 an hour, and the National Rifle Association is working on a plan to arm school volunteers, even as teachers gather in protest outside the group's headquarters.

At stake in the debate are basic questions about the future of gun control in the United States. Do guns in schools assuage fears or fuel them? Do they keep students safe or put them at risk?

In the Butler Area School District, Mr. Strutt and the school board decided that their reaction to Newtown could allow for neither hesitation nor ambiguity. No local school had ever experienced a gun-related threat, but neither had Sandy Hook Elementary. The Butler Area district was running on a $7 million deficit, but some priorities demanded spending. The school board worked out details with a solicitor, who submitted a proposal to a judge, who came into work on a Sunday to sign an emergency order.

Before the first funeral began in Newtown, Butler Area's head of school security began calling retired state troopers to ask two questions with big implications for the future of public education: Did they own a personal firearm? Would they be willing to carry it into an elementary school?

Frank Cichra owned a gun he was willing to carry, so he arrived early last week at a shooting range in the mountains outside Butler, hoping to qualify as an armed school policeman. He wore snow boots, a heavy jacket and earmuffs that doubled as ear protection from the cracking gunfire.

He loaded the magazine of his .40-caliber Beretta as a half-dozen other men arrived at the range. Like Mr. Cichra, they all were retired Pennsylvania troopers recruited as guards.

Butler Area had cut 75 teaching and administrative positions in the past five years because of a shrinking budget, but now, the 7,500-student district couldn't hire armed guards fast enough. It had added a new insurance policy and $230,000 to the annual security budget to arm and employ at least 22 former state troopers -- enough to station at least one guard at each school and every after-school event.

The decision to arm guards had elicited a single protest. One family boycotted school for a day before returning the next.

The district's guard-hiring requirements were at once simple and absolute: only retired state troopers with 20 years of experience who owned a gun and could pass a 60-round shooting test.

Mr. Cichra, 46, paced in the snow to keep warm and watched the first few troopers begin the test. He had been retired for exactly seven months on the day of the Newtown shooting, and that had felt like long enough. He couldn't stand watching TV. Home improvement bored him. He had spent four years in the Army and 21 more on patrol -- a career built on the hard reality of "good guys versus bad," he said.

Newtown offered him another mission: He had three kids, ages 5, 14 and 17, attending schools near Butler. "We might not like it, but the modern reality is our kids are vulnerable, and they need our help," he said. "Nobody's doing this job for money."

The first group of shooters rotated out, and Mr. Cichra holstered his Beretta and took his position on the range. The instructor explained that the test was meant to simulate a firefight -- "a worst-case scenario," he said. Mr. Cichra would be asked to shoot with one hand and then with two; while kneeling and while standing; while walking backward; and while moving toward the target.

"Listen to me and focus on the threat," the instructor said. "Imagine you are closing in on the shooter." Mr. Cichra took aim at a silhouette target from 25 yards. "Fire!" the instructor yelled, as gunshots echoed.

Fifteen yards. "Hit his chest," the instructor shouted. Seven yards. "Kill shot." Two yards. "He's wearing a vest. Aim for the head!"

Mr. Cichra fired his last round and holstered his weapon. The instructor studied the mangled target and counted his score.

Mr. Cichra had been shooting guns for most of his life: hunting rifles as a kid; an automatic M-16 in the Army; a revolver, a Glock and the Beretta as a state trooper. He put on a gun in the morning as he would he put on his glasses or his watch.

He needed a test score of 226 out of 300 to qualify as an armed school guard. The instructor came back with a score sheet. Sixty shots fired. Fifty-nine to the chest and one to the head. "A real marksman," the instructor said. He had scored a perfect 300.

That qualified him to carry his Beretta to work the next morning at Summit Elementary, a single-story school of about 200 students. Mr. Cichra arrived early and turned on a metal detector at the front entrance. He loaded one bullet into the chamber, so he could fire instantaneously in an attack, and 11 more into a magazine.

He sat at a desk facing the glass doors, his eyes scanning the parking lot. In came a boy, 8, tripping over his untied shoelaces. "You're going to fall and hurt yourself, son," Mr. Cichra said. In came another boy, 6, with crayons spilling from his pocket. "Let me get those for you," Mr. Cichra said, bending to collect them.

In came a girl, 10, carrying her backpack though the metal detector, setting off the alarm. "I'm sorry," she said. She handed Mr. Cichra her pink binder and lunch bag. He opened it and sifted through its contents: String cheese. Goldfish. Chocolate milk.

"Looks good," he said, handing it back to the girl. "Looks tasty."

He had decided the best way to carry a gun in an elementary school was to act nothing at all like a person carrying a gun. A few other school guards in the district wore old police vests and displayed guns on their hips, but Mr. Cichra dressed in reading glasses, khaki pants, a collared shirt and a sweater that covered up his Beretta.

He sat by the entrance, reading a newspaper and studying attendance lists to memorize students' names. Whenever one walked by, Mr. Cichra stretched out his right hand to give a high-five.

Every few hours, Mr. Cichra made coffee in the faculty lounge and then patrolled the school's two long hallways, stopping along the way to admire first-graders' cardboard gingerbread men decorating the walls. Summit Elementary had been built when administrators feared a fire more than anything else, and it had five sets of doors to allow for easy exit. Now, those doors were possible entrances for an attacker, and Mr. Cichra double-checked the locks and shook the handles.

Every once in awhile, a student approached him to ask a question. One student, a fifth-grader, wanted to know if Mr. Cichra had ever needed to pull his weapon. He thought a minute about his decade on midnight patrol in Butler County's lonely outreaches -- the heroin addicts, car crashes, trips to notify families of the dead, the knife-wielding drunk who had charged at him and forced him to pull his Beretta, the closest he ever came to firing a weapon.

None of those stories felt appropriate here. "Nothing big," he said. "Just for some police work."

He returned to the front desk and watched the door for $14.71 an hour. He wondered: Was he protecting the kids' environment or changing it?

"It's a fine line," he said.

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