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Pittsburgh Public Schools board nixes proposal to arm school police with guns

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, 8:21 p.m.
The nine-member board that oversees Pittsburgh Public Schools nixed a proposal to arm school police officers with guns on an 1-8 vote during a legislative meeting at the district board room in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018
The nine-member board that oversees Pittsburgh Public Schools nixed a proposal to arm school police officers with guns on an 1-8 vote during a legislative meeting at the district board room in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018

Pittsburgh Public Schools will not be arming its school police officers with guns.

On a 1-8 vote Wednesday night, the board that oversees the district of about 24,000 students nixed a proposal to provide guns to school officers stationed at high school campuses as well as in mobile units that respond to incidents across the district’s 54 schools.

Board member Cynthia Falls, the sole yes vote, said she wanted to arm officers to give them more tools to keep students safe. She cited mass school shootings in recent years, past incidents when she feared for students’ safety as a teacher and a recent incident in which a student brought a gun to a youth football game.

“A safe learning environment is a prerequisite before any learning can take place,” Falls said. “Our trained school police have earned our respect … and have the right to go home safely to their families every night.”

Two school board members — Sala Udin and Kevin Carter — suggested that if school resource officers and employees believe they can’t do their job without guns, they should consider working elsewhere.

Carter said part of keeping students safe involves cultivating a welcoming and trusting environment.

“Bringing in weapons of destruction will disrupt that environment,” Carter said.

The board began mulling the proposed policy change in early October, with school police Chief George Brown telling board members that his officers need guns to do their jobs.

Pittsburgh school police officers are sworn officers and have received firearms training, Chief Brown said at a meeting earlier this month. He said he was concerned about threats from the outside coming into school buildings and told the board that, though weapons are typically not found inside school buildings, they have been recovered from areas surrounding schools.

Before voting down the proposal, Carter said he has seen no evidence that arming police with guns will improve school safety. He said Brown’s information showing that 17 students have had issues off campus with weapons represents about 0.6 percent of the district’s students.

“That is not enough to punish the other 99.4 percent of the other students in our district,” Carter said.

Board member Moira Kaleida suggested that arming police with guns in schools could be detrimental to some students, particularly those who have experienced trauma. She also had concerns that the move could negatively impact students of color and children with disabilities.

Schools across Pennsylvania and the country showed an increased interest in school safety after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Between 14,000 and 20,000 resource officers are working in schools across the country, estimates the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the past several months, the school boards of Upper St. Clair, West Jefferson Hills, North Allegheny and Plum took steps toward hiring armed officers for schools. The North Hills and Franklin Regional school boards have taken steps to create their own police forces.

The Woodland Hills School Board voted to contract officers from the Churchill and Rankin police departments. The officers will be armed, but will not carry Tasers or wear police uniforms.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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