Butler schools like role of armed guards in their buildings

| Friday, June 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Six months after Butler Area School District caught the world's attention by putting armed guards in its schools days after the Sandy Hook shootings, the district finished the school year Thursday with no security officer drawing a gun or needing to, officials said.

While there is some disagreement about the need for such security, students and parents generally support it and say the presence of armed guards in the district's 15 schools is not disruptive.

“I think it is safer knowing that they are there. It was smart of them to do this,” said Dalton Hudak, 18, a senior at Butler Area High School who graduated Thursday.

“You don't notice that they have guns. And we always had to do bag checks anyway,” said Keenan Barlow, 18, another senior.

Butler Area attracted a lot of publicity, but it is not alone in employing armed guards. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 118 of the state's 500 school districts use them, as do 14 alternative education institutions.

Apollo-Ridge School District has had an armed guard since the fall of 2012. Officer Seth Hossack, with the Kiski Township Police Department, will remain on duty through 2013-14, said school board President Greg Primm.

“Our initial thought was to protect the schools,” he said. “But there have been benefits we didn't even think about.”

Hossack can act as a liaison between administrators and outside agencies when a student suffers a mental health problem, often speeding up the process of getting the child help, he said.

Butler Area School Board voted 8-1 on Dec. 10 to have armed guards, purchase weapons for them and set policies. The process was expected to take several months.

On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza shot his mother in her home then killed 20 young children and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself.

Fear of copycat crimes spurred Butler Area and South Butler County school districts to seek court orders to allow armed guards immediately.

“We had French, Swedish and Japanese media outlets calling. I talked with the Voice of Russia,” said Michael Strutt, Butler Area's superintendent. “We just cut it off after a week because we wondered if so much attention would make us a target.”

South Butler also got court approval for armed guards. Two retired state troopers who work part time carry weapons.

“We have not had any problems this year,” said Nelda Burd, South Butler's board president.

Other safety measures under consideration include putting controls on classroom doors to deter unauthorized entry; upgrading school entrances; and applying bullet-resistant film to glass.

“We're trying to approach this in a comprehensive and cost-effective way,” Burd said.

Butler Area's 17 security guards are retired state police officers who are their late 40s to early 60s. They are armed with .40-caliber Glock handguns, a standard police weapon. Salaries, training and weapons cost the district $277,000, Strutt said.

The district's intermediate and senior high schools each have two guards, said head guard Paul Epps, 54. One guard oversees the main entrance, and the other patrols hallways. The district's other schools have one guard each.

“I think it's worked out very well. We've had overwhelming community support,” Strutt said.

Not all Butler residents are enthusiastic.

“I think it's stupid. If a fight breaks out, someone could grab an officer's gun. I don't think guns should be in schools,” said Chrissy Drew, 21, of Butler.

Epps has worked in the district for six years, most of them as an unarmed guard. He says being armed is a deterrent.

“Anyone who wants to cause trouble will now think twice,” he said.

Darrion Frisby, 18, a senior, said he's impressed with the guards' professionalism.

“They are not like shopping mall cops. This whole big rush to get armed guards might be an overreaction. But it's better to be safe than sorry,” Frisby said.

Strutt said the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School near Denver marked the start of serious concern about school security. Butler Area installed metal detectors and started searching students' bags that same year.

“They have had metal detectors for many years, so not much has changed about what you have to do to get into the school. I feel my kids are safe there,” said Denise Grady of Oakland Township, the mother of two Butler Area students.

Staff writer Liz Hayes contributed to this report. Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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