Western Pa. parents, safety experts leery of arming school staff
The fatal shootings of 20 children and six staff members in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December pushed school security to the forefront of America's consciousness, safety experts said.
“Sandy Hook woke a lot of folks up,” said Donald Smith Jr., emergency planning and response management coordinator for the Center for Safe Schools in Camp Hill.
Still, a National Rifle Association-sponsored study released last week that called for training selected school employees to carry guns to protect students was met with disapproval by some local parents, educators and safety experts.
The report recommends that every school have at least one armed security officer — either a trained school staff member or a school resource officer, which is a police officer assigned to a school.
“My opinion is we spend so much time trying to keep weapons out of the schools. I personally feel it's counterproductive to put weapons in the school,” said Wayde Killmeyer, superintendent of the Clairton City School District, which conducted an “active-shooter” drill with school staff members and the Clairton Police Department at the high school on Friday.
Superintendents and representatives from other districts, including Quaker Valley, West Mifflin Area and Bethel Park, also said they would be opposed to measures to train staff to carry guns.
In Pennsylvania, only police officers and individuals who have been designated by the courts as security — such as retired police officers hired by school districts as school resource officers — can carry guns in schools.
Rep. Greg Lucas, R-Edinboro, proposed legislation in January to allow school teachers and administrators to carry weapons. The measure has been referred to the House Education Committee.
In the 2011-12 school year, 131 of 776 of Pennsylvania's school districts, charter schools and other education entities, or 17 percent, had at least one school police officer, resource officer or safety officer authorized to carry weapons, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's most recent data.
For many districts, cost is an issue, Smith said.
Pennsylvania State Police estimate that it costs $91,000 to put a school resource officer into a school for a year, he said.
Mercyhurst University's Center for Applied Politics in Erie polled 485 registered voters statewide. The results, released in February, found that 56 percent were opposed to allowing faculty to be trained to use firearms that would be carried in schools.
Opponents of school personnel carrying guns cite the risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands and the lack of continuous training for school personnel.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association is opposed to any plan to arm school faculty.
“As most law enforcement will tell you, the use of lethal force in armed confrontations requires extensive and ongoing training or, quite simply, that individuals won't be ready when the time comes,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Harrisburg-based teachers union. “So we don't think it's in the best interests of public school safety to be arming educators or other school staff.”
Jack Lee, president of the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association, which is a 2,000-member affiliate of the NRA, disagrees.
He believes gun-free school zones act as magnets for troubled, dangerous people while keeping guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens,.
“I see no problem with (arming teachers) simply because good training is available at most of the areas within reach of teachers,” he said.
Dr. Joel Swanson, 52, whose youngest child is a senior at Quaker Valley High School, is a gun-rights advocate, but the Sewickley resident said he is opposed to faculty members carrying weapons in schools.
A teacher could have a bad day, and even on good days, patience is needed when dealing with students, he said.
Ross resident Jennifer Hibbard, 35, whose fourth-grade and eighth-grade daughters are enrolled in the North Hills School District, said Sandy Hook put fear in all parents, but allowing school staffers to carry guns could worsen problems.
“What if a child got a hold of it?” she asked.
On Wednesday, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, unveiled a bipartisan deal to expand background checks for firearms sales at gun shows and online, but personal transfers would be exempted from those checks.
The NRA-sponsored report was produced by a National School Shield Task Force, which developed a 40- to 60-hour training program the study recommends be available to qualified school staff members who pass background checks.
The report also recommends changing state laws that prohibit teachers and other employees from carrying guns in schools.
Last month, South Dakota became the first state to pass a law to explicitly allow school employees to carry guns in school buildings.
At least 28 states are considering legislation that would allow personnel to carry guns in public schools, according to Lauren Heintz, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
Most of those measures have stalled.
“These bills vary from allowing districts to set teacher carry policy to allowing any teacher/faculty with a concealed carry permit to have a weapon in schools,” she said.
Since the Newtown shootings, more school districts are taking steps to tighten security.
Personnel are attending emergency management committee meetings at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit headquarters in Homestead, said school police Officer Joe Kozarian, one of two armed resource officers in the Brentwood Borough School District.
Training school staff members to carry guns would lead to more problems than solutions, said Kozarian, who is the director of the Hoover, Ala.-based National Association of School Resource Officers' Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania and three other states.
“My concern is some people who might get scared just pull their weapons because they're scared, not because they need it in a life or death situation,” he said.
Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.