Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board members will vote on whether to arm the 22 police officers the district employs later this month.
The 1997 policy that allowed the district to hire officers prohibits them to carry firearms. But, Chief George Brown told the board Monday that his officers need guns to protect students and staff from outside threats.
“I want to stop whatever is coming from the outside [from coming] inside,” he said.
He noted the threat of intruders and pointed to instances of school lockdowns because of nearby shootings while he made his case for the board to revise the 1997 policy. He said officers are often on the scene before city police could arrive, but school police don’t have the same tools to apprehend who called, “bad guys.”
Board member Moira Kaleida led the discussion in front of a packed room at the district’s administrative office in Oakland during a policy workshop. She opposes arming officers, as did many of the people in the room who applauded her when she told Brown that the same students who are disproportionately arrested by school police officers would be affected by a policy change.
“We know who gets shot,” she said. “We know that it’s going to be the young black students. We know it’s going to be the kids with disabilities.”
A PublicSource analysis of school police records obtained through a Right-to-Know request last year found that Pittsburgh school police filed charges 3,400 times for cases on school grounds in the previous four years. Eighty percent of the time charges were filed against African Americans.
An Education Week Research Center analysis last year found that in 43 states and the District of Columbia, black students were arrested in school at disproportionately high levels
At Monday’s meeting, ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Harold Jordan said giving guns to existing school officers would change the environment for students.
“That sends a very strong, negative message to students that somehow, firearms are needed in terms of dealing with the kind of everyday things that go on in schools,” Jordan said.
One member of the audience, Darlene Figgs, a former PPS educator, and education task force chair for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, said she worries that routine confrontations between students and school police would escalate if a gun were involved.
“I think that if we look at what’s happening in this country outside of the school system, there’s no reason to think that what happens inside of the school system would be any different,” she said.
Brown came back to the same point repeatedly when answering questions from board members.
“I want those bad guys to stay three or four blocks from my school and stay out of my school,” he said. “But what if they do? Then what are we supposed to do then? We are not out to harm the kids. We want to save the kids in case something happens.”
A majority of board members sided against arming officers and said this move could put kids at risk.
Board president Regina Holley and board member Kevin Carter both said they never thought the board would entertain the idea of allowing guns in schools. Both said it was not something they would approve.
“My support is going to be for us working together as a community of safety people to support our children,” she said. “I want to be really clear. I am not voting to arm school police. There are enough people out there with a gun. I don’t need to have school police coming in with a gun as well. Our city police know what to do. I put my trust in them. Sometimes they make me mad but I know one thing, when I need to call them, they are there.”
She and Sala Udin thanked Brown and his officers for all of the work they do but said that doesn’t mean they need weapons in places of learning.
This conversation between school police and the board has been at least three years in the making. Pittsburgh Public’s 22 officers and 66 security guards are unionized and represented by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
In 2015 the union’s executive board approved a resolution recommending the district issue firearms to its school police.
The following year, the union approached board members individually.
Bill Hileman, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said officers came to the union saying guns are needed to protect students from intruders. He denies that officers want guns to police students.
“This in no way is a call by the PFT or the police that we represent because they feel there is some need in the hallways of our schools,” he said.
Hileman said that officers are able to de-escalate tense situations because they are in schools and build relationships with students. He said the union wants a seat at the table during this discussion. But for years, it wasn’t a public conversation.
In February, 17 people were killed in a Parkland Florida high school and President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested arming teachers.
The Pittsburgh School Board was quick to shut that idea down. It approved a resolution this summer saying the district would not arm staff. It also called for “sensible gun legislation.”
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet also believes guns don’t belong in schools. And says outside threats can be addressed by Pittsburgh city officers.
But during the discussion on arming school staff, two board members asked to revisit the possibility of allowing police officers to carry firearms. Both Terry Kennedy and Cindy Falls abstained from the resolution vote after a lengthy debate about process, the way the resolution was introduced to the board and what both called a lack of community and staff input on the board’s stance.
Kennedy chairs the safety committee and said listening to employees is part of the board’s job.
“And if our school police officers feel strongly that they need some more tools. I think we owe them the respect to be open-minded and listen to their message,” she said.
Board member Falls was not at the meeting but said in an email that she supported arming the officers. No other board members openly voiced support for the proposal.