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Western Pa. school districts grapple with need for armed guards

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By Mike Wereschagin and Bill Vidonic
Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 11:52 p.m.
 

As parents, educators and others struggle with the grim question of how to protect children in a place that's supposed to be safe, one Western Pennsylvania school district is considering accelerating the deployment of armed guards to its buildings.

Butler Area School District directors voted this week to arm school police within three months, but upon Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., board members plan to meet early next week to speed up the process.

“We're going to do everything we need to do to protect our students and staff,” Butler Area Superintendent Michael Strutt said. “If that means putting an armed officer in every building, that's what we'll do.”

Of the state's 498 school districts, 118 use armed guards, according to the state Department of Education. Thirteen alternative education institutions, most of them charter schools, have armed guards as well.

Parents responded to the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history on Friday with a mix of sorrow, confusion and fatalism. Twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School suffered fatal wounds, Connecticut State Police said. The shooter killed himself, police said.

“If somebody truly wants to do something like that, they'll find a way ... whether it's to sneak past security or waiting outside,” said Ted Oshie, whose two children attend Grandview Elementary School in the Derry Area School District in Westmoreland County.

Security procedures at districts vary, from sign-in sheets to remote-controlled locks to armed guards. Ninety-nine percent of public schools require visitors to sign in, 92 percent lock or monitor doors during school hours and 63 percent have an electronic notification system for a schoolwide emergency, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Each layer of security owes its existence to tragedies such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Newtown likely will leave its own legacy, said Francisco Negron, general council of the National Association of School Boards.

Most school shootings involved a troubled student. This shooting, reportedly by a man whose mother taught at the elementary school, would “now focus the conversation toward the external person coming in, and how schools will deal with that,” Negron said.

Entrance to Pittsburgh Public Schools buildings is controlled from within by remote lock, and several schools use metal detectors. School police in Pittsburgh, the state's second-largest district, do not carry guns.

“We benefit by having school police who work in partnership with city police,” Pittsburgh schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.

State law requires districts to get a judge's approval to arm officers and grant them arrest powers. The state Department of Education defers to local districts on the issue, spokesman Tim Eller said.

Greensburg Salem High School considered posting an armed officer at the high school after two teenagers killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine, but a disagreement with the city over who would pay for it scuttled the plan. Some people worried about having an armed officer in the school, but Greensburg police Chief Wally Lyons said an unarmed guard would be useless.

“He is no good to anyone, including himself, unless he is armed,” Lyons said.

About one in four schools across the country have police or security personnel inside on a daily basis, Negron said.

No matter how many precautions a district takes, it might not be enough, said Joe Lutz, a Hempfield school director and the parent of two elementary-age children.

“What if they're carrying a concealed weapon?” Lutz said. “The only thing left is to lock down the schools and make every person subject to a metal detector and search everyone. Then what? Do you search the cars in the parking lot?”

Despite the shooting, the idea of armed guards patrolling hallways strikes some as unsettling. Jim Keffalas, a Butler school board member who voted against arming school security on Monday said the Newtown tragedy moved him “a notch or two” toward arming guards.

“But I still feel I'd like to have more discussions, look at more statistical data and talk to more experts,” Keffalas said. “I'm still not sure whether the arming of the secondary school police is what we need to do at this point.”

An hour before the Newtown shooting, students at the Butler Area High School said there hadn't been much talk this week about the decision. It seemed a distant concern, a problem only in theory, and some responded to it with a shrug.

“If they have to use force, they have to use force,” said senior Cody Gilbert, 18, of Butler. “It's nice to have (a weapon) if you need it. You can never be too safe.”

Staff writers Rich Gazarik, Joe Napsha and Paul Peirce contributed. Bill Vidonic and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Vidonic can be reached at bvidonic@tribweb.com. Werschagin is at mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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