Police officers employed by the Pittsburgh Public Schools have the same arrest powers and receive the same training as their counterparts in municipal police departments. The big difference is, the school district’s police officers don’t carry guns. It’s time for that to change.
The city schools employ two groups of public-safety professionals — 57 school security aides, who have limited authority, and 23 sworn police officers, including the chief and assistant chief. The aides may be found throughout the district’s 54 schools. At least one police officer is assigned to each of the district’s high schools, and the other officers function as a mobile force, traveling from one location to another as needed. The ranks also include two police dogs.
The police officers are unarmed even though they work in environments where weapons sometimes are found and violence sometimes erupts. There also is the threat of schools being attacked from the outside or of street violence spilling onto school property. Municipal police officers wouldn’t be asked to face on-the-job risks without weapons; school police officers shouldn’t be asked to do so, either. Aaron Vanatta, a Quaker Valley School District police officer and Region 3 director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, put it this way: Police officers without guns are like “firefighters without any hoses. What’s the sense?”
An abundance of caution apparently has driven the Pittsburgh school district’s prohibition on gun-carrying officers through the years. Linda Lane, who retired as superintendent last year, said she “never felt that guns and kids were a good combination, no matter who has the gun.”
The security aides do not have police-level training. They should not be armed, and no one is suggesting that they should be. However, the district should be able to trust school police officers to carry weapons, considering they receive the same firearms training as municipal police and would be qualified to work for municipal police departments.
Consider Officer Vanatta, who carries a weapon while working for Quaker Valley and in his other job as a patrolman with the South Strabane police department in Washington County. He said most school police officers — school resource officers is another term — carry weapons. By arming its officers, the Pittsburgh district would be breaking no ground, only joining the ranks of those who consider the step prudent.
The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which represents the 21 rank-and-file officers, correctly points out the absurdity of the district’s position. The PFT said the district gives the officers bulletproof vests, a clear recognition of the danger they face, and noted that armed city of Pittsburgh police sometimes help to provide security at school events. The union says school police sometimes must call Pittsburgh police for assistance, meaning unarmed and armed officers are working side by side in a school. While driving through the city, school police officers would be expected to intervene in any crime they observe or respond to any citizen’s plea for help, even without weapons.
Given the population they protect and the tools currently at their disposal, school police officers may be better than their peers in municipal departments at de-escalating situations without force. Though additional training in firearms and use of force always would be welcome, this isn’t a group with itchy trigger fingers.
The PFT Executive Board two years ago passed a resolution supporting the arming of school police officers and followed that last year with a letter asking school board members to make the change. It received no response. The union says no flurry of incidents prompted the proposal, just interest in employee and student safety. The issue of arming officers may come up in spring school board races; District 5 board member Terry Kennedy hasn’t taken a position on the issue, but her opponent, Ghadah Makoshi, has expressed opposition. School district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said Superintendent Anthony Hamlet is deferring to the board on this issue.
Arming the school police wouldn’t be a rash act putting students, teachers and other employees at risk. With proper oversight, the measure would enhance safety rather than diminish it.