Police in schools a costly proposition

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 11:50 p.m.

Training and stationing a police officer in every Allegheny County public school for one year would cost taxpayers about $15 million, a Tribune-Review analysis shows.

Schools across Western Pennsylvania have considered adding officers to their hallways since Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders, six adults and himself on Dec. 14 in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The $15 million figure for a new officer in each of the 302 public schools in Allegheny County is based on average training costs and first-year salaries.

The number of districts opting to place an officer at schools is rising steadily, officials say.

“There is a lot of activity right now,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala. “There is a different kind of fallout because (the Sandy Hook shootings) happened at an elementary school. Departments and districts are looking at ways to add resource officers.”

Days after the Connecticut shootings, Butler Area and South Butler school officials obtained emergency permission from a county judge to put armed officers in their schools.

Before then, 118 of the state's 498 districts used armed guards, according to the state Department of Education. It's not clear how many districts statewide added armed guards since the shootings, because the Department of Education tallies those numbers once a year.

Mars Area School District added an officer in the weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting. The district pays the Adams Police Department $40 an hour for the officer.

“We still have to provide a safe haven,” Mars superintendent William Pettigrew said. “Our priority is the safety of the students and the faculty. You do what you need to do.”

Training a new recruit costs an estimated $9,000, according to Pittsburgh police. The average starting salary of an officer nationwide is $40,500, according to the Bureau of Justice.

Police officers who will be stationed in schools can receive additional training through the National Association of School Resource officers. According to the organization's website, a 40-hour basic training class will be held in Bethel Park next week. The cost is $495.

The state does not require any additional training for resource officers, said Tim Eller, Department of Education spokesman, but state law requires districts to get a judge's approval to arm officers and grant them arrest powers.

The Education Department defers to local districts on the issue.

Position ‘designed for a veteran officer'

Canady pointed out that “school resource officer” and “security guard” are not synonymous. Resource officers are sworn law enforcement agents. Most resource officers are department veterans with at least three years' experience, he said.

“It is designed for a veteran police officer,” he said. “With a new person in any police department, you're not sure what you're getting. They have to have the right temperament. You can't do that with someone new. It's really best for veteran officers.”

In addition to increasing security, resource officers serve as mentors to students and help with crime prevention education. They also assist in policing school events.

Canady said some resource officers make more than their peers, depending on the department.

“Some offer a slight pay increase for being assigned to a specialty unit,” he said.

Peters Township School District added a resource officer from the local department this year.

“We have been trying to bring this position on for the past few years as part of our safety efforts,” district spokeswoman Shelly Belcher said. “We tried a few different ways — exploring private security firms, etc., but this partnership was the best solution for us. There was no incident that brought about the decision.”

The district pays 75 percent of the officer's salary. Officials budgeted $62,000 for it in 2012-13.

Officials in the Canon-McMillan School District asked officers from North Strabane, Cecil and Canonsburg police departments to double their presence at schools in light of the Newtown shooting, according to Scott Chambers, interim principal and safety coordinator.

Officers used to patrol the schools once a day. The district does not pay the departments for the patrols.

“Everyone was in favor of amping up security,” Chambers said.

In Plum, the school board is considering whether to add school resource officers. Plum police officer Mark Kost has been a resource officer for nearly a decade, Superintendent Tim Glasspool said.

The district pays $76,000 for Kost, and the borough picks up the remainder of the cost. The total wasn't immediately available.

Rachel Weaver and Bill Vidonic are staff writers for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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