School police officers sworn into the Gateway School District were equipped with firearms for the first time after the district’s petition for an armed force was approved Tuesday. The district plans to have an armed officer at each of the district’s seven schools.
A similar petition was denied in September by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Timothy O’Reilly who said the school board did not think the decision through and officers did not have enough training. The school board is still appealing that verdict.
In the meantime, the board filed an amended petition in criminal court removing language that said the officers would have the authority to perform arrests.
Judge Jeffrey Manning said after the hearing that having protection for children in schools is vital.
Legally, under state public school code, the district is allowed to support its own police force equipped with firearms, pending court approval. Eight of Allegheny County’s districts have private police forces. Six of those are able to carry firearms.
School board member Chad Stubenbort said the board never wanted officers to have that power, but officers do have the power to detain an offender and write a summary offense.
“So if anything were to happen, if an intruder were to come into the school, they would be able to detain and call local law enforcement to come make the arrest,” he said.
The 13 officers have been acting as security guards for the district since they were hired in August. Stubenbort said at least eight officers have been sworn in by the magistrate. Five officers have completed School Resource Officer training and all are expected to complete the training by next year when the district plans to hire six more officers. The 13 hired officers have also received special education training, safety and first aid, as well as ALICE active shooter training.
“They just haven’t had the tools of the trade,” he said. “These are highly trained individuals. Individuals that have been in leadership for state police or other local police.”
Those officers are using their own firearms, Stubebort said. He said the district did not purchase firearms. The district’s hired training officer evaluated the weapons, he said.
When the board discussed hiring a police force, one concern brought up by a board member was the psychological impact school officers have on students.
Judge O’Reilly wrote that that the policy was, “undoubtedly a reaction to the horrific events occurring in other parts of the country.” But, he said, giving the officers the same power of municipal police could lead to potential abuses.
Stubebort said the board hired two psychologists to observe the officers and interview principals, students and staff on the presence of officers.
“They said that … the students and staff view these individuals as professionals and there were no negative effects they have seen,” he said. “They think it’s a good thing for the students.”
The board has not met since the petition was approved to discuss the appeal of the initial petition.