Armed police at city's public schools generating buzz during board election year
March 20, 2017 12:00 AM
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Police officers at the Pittsburgh Public Schools are empowered to make arrests, confiscate drugs, gather evidence and disarm anyone on school grounds carrying a weapon. But the district doesn’t allow them to carry guns themselves, a policy the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has said should be reconsidered.
While the debate has been quiet so far, it seems poised to surface as an election-year issue between at least two candidates running for school board — incumbent Terry Kennedy and her opponent in District 5, Ghadah Makoshi.
“It’s not that we think there’s this emergent need in the hallways of our schools,” said PFT vice-president Billy Hileman, whose union represents the district’s 21 school police. Still, he said, the union “believes our schools will be safer places if our police can respond to someone from the outside who may have harmful intentions.”
“If there is an active shooter in the school,” he added, “our school police are the ones that have the duty to intervene."
City police provide backup for serious situations, but a September 2015 PFT resolution called that arrangement a “flawed safety system due to lengthy response time of the Pittsburgh Police” and their “reluctance … to deal with situations near certain schools, including afternoon and evening sporting events” that draw students and parents outside PPS.
In January 2016, Mr. Hileman took matters a step further, sending a letter to all nine board members asking them to consider removing the language prohibiting guns. The request, he said in an interview, was an effort to begin a “discussion about issuing firearms to school police officers and what the implementation would entail.” (The union itself has recommended training and psychological evaluation before issuing guns.)
That discussion didn’t take place for another year, after it was raised by Ms. Kennedy, who began chairing the school board’s safety committee late last year.
“There was no formal response” to the union’s request for dialogue, she said. “There was no discussion. I felt that was wrong.”
Regina Holley, who chaired the safety committee prior to Ms. Kennedy, couldn’t be reached for comment. But school board vice president Moira Kaleida attributed the lack of movement in part to then-superintendent Linda Lane’s resistance to the idea and “a moral concern among board members about moving this forward.”
“I understand this is a concern for the police officers in the district. I’m not sure how the other 3,000 members feel about this,” she added, noting she has heard concerns from teachers.
Ms. Kennedy said she doesn’t have an opinion on the matter yet, adding, “We’re investigating to understand the pros and cons and all the complications, and until we have all the data … the safety committee can’t even make a recommendation to the full board on whether to proceed.”
But Ms. Makoshi, Ms. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic and Republican primary elections May 16, has already voiced opposition to the idea in an email to parents at Pittsburgh Minadeo PreK-5, where she volunteers. She said she did so after hearing of “a push” to change the policy.
“For me this is an important issue, because if you allow guns in our schools it essentially condones the inevitability that a child will be shot,” she said in an interview. “Our schools aren’t war zones.”
Such concerns dovetail with the district’s policy to date. Nine months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Mrs. Lane told KDKA-TV she “never felt that guns and kids were a good combination, no matter who has the gun.” District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the school system is aware of the union’s request. Asked about the district’s and superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s position on the matter, she said only that any changes would need to be approved by the board.
At least one other district has come to a conclusion recently. In December, President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court approved a Gateway School District petition to allow the school district’s new security team to carry guns and issue citations on school property. Superintendent William Short has called Sandy Hook “the unthinkable act that led us down this path.”
School police Chief George Brown Jr. was off on vacation Friday and unavailable for an interview.
Pennsylvania Department of Education spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman said 170 of the state's 500 school districts have officers authorized to carry a weapon. PDE, however, doesn't have a position on the matter.
"This is decision that must be made by districts by evaluating the unique factors of their schools and communities," she said.
Tiffany Sizemore-Thompson, assistant clinical professor at the Duquesne University School of Law, who specializes in juvenile justice issues, called the idea “a recipe for disaster” and said the district lacks data to support such a need.
“Having a gun really serves only to shore up that presence” of police as an “occupying force,” she said. “This is a school district that should be focused on progressive policies that are intended to decrease the amount of negative interactions [police] are having with children of color.”
Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1944.
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