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Butler school districts get OK to arm guards

| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

At least two Pittsburgh area school districts got special permission on Sunday to arm their security officers when classes resume on Monday, the first school day after the Newtown, Conn., massacre.

“We want to have at least one armed officer at each of our schools, starting tomorrow and every day thereafter,” said Butler Area School District Superintendant Michael Strutt. “It was our intent to do this anyway; (the Newtown shooting) caused us to think about it and work over the weekend to expedite that process.”

Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr gave the Butler Area and South Butler school districts special permission on Sunday to have their qualified school police officers — all Pennsylvania State Police retirees — carry their personal service weapons in school buildings.

Other districts throughout the region reached out to reassure parents via letters and emails that their children would be safe, reiterating security procedures and offering counseling for students shocked by Friday's slayings.

Authorities say Adam Lanza, 20, killed 27 people, including his mother and 20 children, before killing himself in Sandy Creek Elementary School in Newtown.

The Butler Area school board voted 8-1 on Dec. 10 to move toward arming the district's officers within a few months as the district purchased weapons for them and set policies for officers to follow. But the fear of copycat crimes after the Newtown shootings spurred Butler Area schools to seek a special order from Doerr to allow armed guards at all 14 of its school buildings as soon as classes resumed on Monday, Strutt said.

Most officers in Butler and South Butler were still qualified to carry their weapons on-duty and needed the judge's permission to take them onto school property; those whose qualifications had expired met on Sunday afternoon with the firearms trainer from the Butler County Sheriff's Office to get recertified, said attorney Tom King, who is solicitor for both districts. Parents in the districts will be notified of the change via automated calls and text messages, he said.

Butler Area school board member Bill Halle said he favored arming the police but worried that the district rushed into it without considering limitations on the use of weapons and the training requirements for officers.

“We need to make sure we have clear, specific protocols in place before we have guns in school, and now we've thrown that under the table,” he said.

Butler is not alone in employing armed guards; 118 of Pennsylvania's 498 school districts use them, along with 14 alternative education institutions, according to the State Department of Education.

Pittsburgh School Police do not carry weapons but work closely with city police.

Bethel Park School District has a combination of unarmed guards in its high school, one armed school police officer who is paid by the district upon retiring from the municipal police department, and one armed school resource officer who is paid by the district and the municipality, said district spokeswoman Vicki Flotta.

As news of the Connecticut shooting unfolded, some students told the principal at Bethel Park High School of reports of a threat supposedly planned there for Friday, Flotta said. Superintendent Nancy Rose sent parents a message this weekend that said there had been no threat, and attributed the students' concerns to rumors and misunderstandings.

“We have not received a threat of any kind,” Flotta said. “The administration and school police have looked into it and found no credible threat.”

Elsewhere in Butler County, Seneca Valley Superintendent Tracy Vitale sent a letter to parents mentioning that her district had investigated a threat last week and found nothing credible, but officials requested an increased police presence. The district normally has one armed and uniformed School Resource Officer from the Jackson Police Department on its secondary school campus whenever class is in session, along with “campus security officers,” the letter said.

Many school districts, including Mt. Lebanon, Elizabeth Forward, North Hills and Avonworth, sent letters to parents or posted notices online reiterating their security procedures. Those include locked entrances to schools that require visitors to be buzzed in through the building's offices, security cameras and emergency lockdown or evacuation procedures.

“We feel confident the plans we have in place are good ones,” said Mt. Lebanon School Board President Elaine Cappucci.

Others, including Chartiers Valley, Keystone Oaks, Plum and Upper St. Clair, offered online statements linking parents to guidelines for discussing school violence and reassuring that school security would undergo a thorough review.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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