January 11, 2013

School guards armed and ready

Finding passive security systems inadequate, one school district puts retired state troopers in each school.

By ELI SASLOW The Washington Post

BUTLER, Pa. - Four hundred miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, a Pennsylvania superintendent named Mike Strutt left a morning meeting on Dec. 14 and decided to place his schools on "threat alert." He was concerned about a copycat attack on the day of the Connecticut shooting. But, as he read reports of the massacre, he started to worry more about something else.

SCHOOL GUARDS
click image to enlarge

Retired Pennsylvania state trooper Les Strawbridge chats with Butler Intermediate High School teachers. The school system hired enough retired troopers to put one in each school.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

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The school safety initiative would make federal dollars available to schools that want to hire police officers and install surveillance equipment, although it is not nearly as far-ranging as the National Rifle Association's proposal for armed guards in every U.S. school.

The idea is gaining currency among some Democratic lawmakers, who see it as a potential area of common ground with Republicans who otherwise oppose stricter restrictions on firearms. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal Democrat from California, said she presented the plan to Vice President Joe Biden and that he was "very, very interested" and may include it in the policy recommendations he makes to President Obama.

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Biden plans to present recommendations from the administration's working group on gun violence to Obama next Tuesday. Biden said Thursday that he sees an emerging consensus around "universal background checks" for all gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

-- The Washington Post

For 20 years he had specialized in school safety, filling three binders with security plans and lockdown drills - all of which felt suddenly inadequate. In the case of an attack, would a "threat alert" do him any good?

He looked out his office window at the snow-covered trees of western Pennsylvania and imagined a gunman approaching one of Butler County's 14 schools, allowing the attack to unfold in his mind. In came the gunman past the unarmed guards Strutt had hired after Columbine; past the metal detectors he had installed after Virginia Tech; past the intercom and surveillance system he had updated after Aurora.

Strutt stood from his desk and called the president of the Butler County School Board, Don Pringle.

"This could happen here," Strutt said. "Armed guards are the one thing that gives us a fighting chance. Don't we want that one thing?"

That question has preoccupied schools across the country since 27 people died in Newtown, Conn., last month, and the emerging solutions reflect the nation's views on gun control. In a divided America, guns are either the problem or the solution, with little consensus in between. A dozen states have proposed legislation to put armed guards in schools; five others have drafted plans to officially disallow them.

Groups in Utah are training teachers to carry their own guns, Tennessee is hiring armed "security specialists" for $11.50 an hour and the National Rifle Association is working on a plan to arm school volunteers even as teachers gather in protest outside the group's headquarters.

At stake in the debate are basic questions about the future of gun control in the United States. Do guns in schools assuage fears or fuel them? Do they keep students safe or put them at risk?

Here in Butler, a shale-mining town in the woodsy hills north of Pittsburgh, Strutt and the school board decided their reaction to Newtown could allow for neither hesitation nor ambiguity. No local school had ever experienced a gun-related threat, but neither had Sandy Hook Elementary. The district was running on a $7 million deficit, but some priorities demanded spending.

The school board worked out details with a solicitor, who submitted a proposal to a judge, who came into work on a Sunday to sign an emergency order. Before the first funeral began in Newtown, Butler's head of school security began calling retired state troopers to ask two questions with major implications for the future of public education:

Did they own a personal firearm?

Would they be willing to carry it into an elementary school?

Frank Cichra owned a gun that he was willing to carry, so he arrived early last week at a shooting range in the mountains outside Butler, hoping to qualify as an armed school policeman. He wore snow boots, a heavy jacket and earmuffs that doubled as ear protection from the cracking sound of gunfire. He slipped on gloves and cut the black fabric away from his right index finger.

"Won't hit the target unless I can feel the trigger," he said.

He loaded the magazine of his .40-caliber Beretta as a half-dozen other men arrived at the range. Like Cichra, they all were retired Pennsylvania state troopers who had been recruited as guards.

(Continued on page 2)

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