Eight former police officers will be patrolling school hallways instead of streets this fall.
By a 7-2 vote Tuesday, the Gateway School District Board of Education approved the placement of at least one armed officer in each of the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.
Board president Chad Stubenbort said the district will hire retired officers to work part-time as part of its $300,000 security budget. Recent school attacks, especially the 2014 mass stabbing in nearby Franklin Regional High School, proved violence can happen anywhere, he said.
“It really is a wake-up call when something like that happens so close to home that you’re not going to be that safe anywhere,” Stubenbort said.
Gateway is responding to that call by bumping safety spending by $50,000 with no tax increase or use of general funds.
“We’re not breaking the bank," Stubenbort said. "We are being mindful of taxpayers, but also obviously taking care of our number one priority, which is the safety and security of the students, the staff and the teachers.”
Gateway’s 2016-17 security budget allocates about $10,000 for the new personnel to receive school resource officer training.
Joseph Kozarian, former Region 3 director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that training is pivotal to ensure officers learn how to apply their street smarts to classroom altercations.
School resource officers know students names, get to know their families and familiarize themselves with the school routine, Kozarian said. If a student is acting out or withdrawing, he or she may be able to take that into account better than an external disciplinary force.
“I don’t see why school districts would hire a police officer retired or not and not send him to the training, because he could be so much in that school, he could do so much more for you, and benefit the kids, instead of just standing there, with a gun, standing at the door,” Kozarian said.
The new officers will become part of the district's independent police department, pending approval from the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Stubenbort said the board has already received a number of applications for the positions.
Stubenbort said community support for the measure has been overwhelming; he said he received only two emails criticizing the policy. He credits strong public endorsement to the widespread recognition of the need for increased security in the district. None of Gateway’s four elementary schools currently employ security personnel.
“I think districts will begin to move this way. When we look 10, 15 years ago, a lot of schools didn’t even have security guards,” Stubenbort said. He said he expects more school districts to follow suit, citing Hempfield and Highlands.
The board is also taking Gateway’s 3,200 K-12 students into account. None are unaccustomed to this level of security, he said.
Gateway looked to the successful implementation of armed guards in Butler Area School District for inspiration. As in Butler, the officers will don khakis, ties and badges, rather than uniforms, to appear more approachable.
Beyond appearances, Kozarian said school-based law enforcers require unique personalities. He said that not only are these officers providing protection, but they are also potential educators and mentors.
“These individuals are there not to be enforcers, not to scare anyone, not to do anything like that, but to provide protection," Stubenbort said. "God forbid anything were to happen.”