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City School Board Rejects Proposal To Arm Its Police Officers

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh Public Schools board rejected a proposal to arm school police officers in an 8-1 vote.

Pittsburgh Public Schools police officers will not be allowed to carry guns anytime soon.

The school board voted 8-1 Wednesday to deny a revised policy that would have authorized the district’s 22 sworn officers to carry firearms.

The policy that currently bans arming officers was approved in 1997 when the force was established.

Board members including president Regina Holley said weapons do not belong in places of learning.

“Our vote tonight will be one in which we are telling our security staff ‘continue doing the work you are doing.' But for me it does not mean I am going to let you strap a gun to your side,” she said.

Cindy Falls was the lone vote in support of the change. She said the officers requested weapons in order to protect students and staff from outside threats. She also noted that a previous board had authorized the purchase of bullet proof vests for officers.

“My thought is that there is a possibility that their lives could be at risk. We expect them to possibly take a bullet, but not have a firearm to defend themselves, our students or our staff,” she said.

Earlier this week at a public hearing, dozens of community members asked school board members to reject the proposal. They said the same students who are disproportionately arrested by school police officers would be affected by a policy change: students of color and students 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 black individuals.

An Education Week Research Center analysis last year found that in 43 states and the District of Columbia, black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels.

The conversation of arming Pittsburgh Public’s officers 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. But it wasn’t a public discussion until earlier this month; during a school board policy workshop, School Police Chief George Brown told the board that guns were a tool his officers need to do their job.

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 would be on the scene before city police could arrive, but school police don’t have the same tools to apprehend who he called, “bad guys.”

Before that Oct. 1 policy workshop, the board also approved a resolution this summer saying the district would not arm staff. It also called for “sensible gun legislation.” That resolution was in direct response to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ suggestion to arm teachers after 17 people were killed in a February Florida high school shooting.

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.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet also has said he does not think guns belong in schools. He has said outside threats can be addressed by Pittsburgh city officers.