School Board Votes Down Guns for Police Officers: An Inside Look

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District Policy Workshop on October 1

District Policy Workshop on October 1

District Policy Workshop on October 1

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

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Six of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ nine board members are seated around a large rectangular table, along with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and many other district officials. A crowd numbering several dozen watches on. The air in the room is relaxed, business-as-usual—but in less than an hour, onlookers will be asked to refrain from shouting angrily after a comment that “race isn’t a factor” in police brutality.

Three policies are up for debate: one has to do with educational equity, another with permits for the usage of school facilities after hours. These pass, relatively speaking, without incident. But the main attraction is saved for last: the question of whether we should allow school police officers to carry firearms.

Specifically, the proposal at hand seeks to alter Section 335 of the school board policy manual, pertaining to school police. Rendered in excruciating detail in a six-and-a-half page document, it outlines the process by which school police officers, of whom Pittsburgh Public Schools employs 22, “who are properly certified in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth may possess weapons on their person” so as to “preserve a safe school environment for students and staff.” Officers “shall only use the amount of force necessary to mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm.”

Spoiler alert: in three weeks time, it will be voted down almost unanimously.

But for now, we’re back to the hearing room, and things are getting tense. George Brown, Chief of School Safety, is here to advocate on behalf of the proposed alteration to the code. He explains that the idea isn’t to create a situation in which more violence than necessary is used, but rather the opposite: “We’re trying to stop the streets from coming into the schools, so that our kids can sit, laugh, get an education. And you cannot get an education if we let these people inside to do whatever they want to do,” he says, referring to potential attackers.

With him is Kim Stolfer, an ex-U.S. Marine and founder of the Pennsylvania group Firearms Owners Against Crime. He insists that accessibility of guns for school police officers actually reduces acts of violence when used by certified professionals, which many of Pittsburgh’s officers are, and maintains that there has never been an instance of misuse of a firearm by a school police officer ever in the United States.

“If a police officer needs to use lethal force, which rarely happens but can happen very rapidly, there is no other recourse. Parkland, Florida was one where it should have been used and wasn’t,” he says, referencing February’s Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead. “It’s not a question of if an incident is going to happen, but it really is a question of when.”

And yes, he also claimed that race played no role in instances where guns were used inappropriately.

Opposite him both ideologically and physically in the room is Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union and member of the state’s Behavioral Health and School Climate Subcommittee of the broader School Safety Committee.

Jordan unleashes a barrage of counterpoints to Stolfer’s argument, beginning with a rebuttal to the notion that race “isn’t a factor.”

“What’s happening in a lot of schools around the state is that there is a recognition that students of color, in particular African-American students, and students with disabilities are having much more contact with police.”

Jordan goes on to provide an alternative method for dealing with rising school violence: increased student support.

“If you take the existing police that are in schools and add a firearm, you’re changing the school environment for the students. You’re sending a very negative message….The reality is that a well-armed person carrying high-capacity weapons can cause chaos no matter what kind of policing arrangement you have,” he says.

“The best thing we can be doing right now is to improve the quality and the amount of student support resources.”

Following Jordan’s input, every member of the school board who is in attendance is given an opportunity to speak on the issue, and each voices their opposition. But perhaps the most compelling response comes from Moira Kaleida of District 6, who incidentally is chairing the meeting. She hones in on particular on one assertion that Stolfer made: that individuals using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, designed to treat depression, are “at the epicenter of virtually every mass shooting.”

In an impassioned soliloquy, delivered with a quivering voice as she struggled to contain her emotion, Kaleida made her opinion of that statement very clear: “We in this district embrace all students, specifically our students who might have a special need, a mental health issue, and we do not ever purport to see them as potential killers. We want to see how we can lift them up and help them and make them feel welcomed and treated right.”

“I’m personally on an SSRI, so, I don’t know, guys, watch out, I guess,” she says, spanning her gaze across the room. “That statistic- I just don’t believe that’s true.”

The data would seem to contradict Stolfer, as well. As Mr. Jordan pointed out, a July report published by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center found that there is no “profile” of a school shooter, that there are no discernable signs that indicate a potential attacker.

The night ended somewhat inconclusively, as those in the audience, many of whom had prepared public comments, were not given an opportunity to share them due to time constraints. However, just last week, the proposal was killed by a score of 8-1, the lone “nay” coming from Cynthia Falls of District 7.

Three days after the vote, a 46-year-old man by the name of Robert Bowers would walk into Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murder 11 with an assault rifle and three handguns. President Trump would immediately imply that the lives could have been spared had an armed guard been present at the place of worship.

You be the judge.

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