Update (10/26/23): The North Allegheny School Board unanimously approved the creation of a districtwide police department on Wednesday. The appointed police officers will “play an essential role by being the first line of defense in a potential critical violent incident, building strong and positive relationships with all stakeholders, and taking a proactive approach to safety, security, monitoring, and training in each of the buildings they will help protect,” according to a public statement. The district’s immediate priorities are to hire a chief and deploy officers in each of its schools.

Reported (10/19/23):

North Allegheny police force plan questioned over cost, fairness, transparency

Community members and parents in the North Allegheny School District [NASD] were divided Wednesday over a school board proposal to introduce a police force in the district. 

The board put forth a proposal to implement a district-based police force during a workshop session meeting on Oct. 18. The proposal would add 12 armed police officers, one in each of the district’s buildings, and establish a chief of school police, safety and security. The proposal is based on a U.S. Secret Service Analysis that says school resource officers play an important role in school violence prevention. 

The board will vote on the proposal in next week’s legislative session. 

The district would create the police force by hiring certified retired police officers at an estimated total cost of $787,356. 

“We have a responsibility to do everything that we can to keep our kids safe.” 

Superintendent Brendan Hyland said he wants to expand the existing school resource officer [SRO] program so that the district’s elementary and middle schools also have security measures. The current program, introduced in 2018, deploys two police officers from the McCandless Police Department in North Allegheny’s two high schools. 

“We have a responsibility to do everything that we can to keep our kids safe. Moreover, I think families need that sense,” said Hyland.

Proposal gets mixed reactions from board, community members

During the meeting, most school board members expressed support for implementing the police force, although some opposed.

Board member Leslie Britton-Dozier argued community members were not given enough time before the board votes next week and the decision should include heavy community feedback. 

She said she was concerned about the treatment of vulnerable students and students of color by having armed police officers.

Research shows that the presence of SROs or school police officers contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline by amplifying arrests for noncriminal, youthful behaviors, especially among Black students. 

“It is my hope that our colleagues will readily support additional expenditures that address the well-being of our students with the same vigor, experience, energy and urgency that they have for the police department,” said Britton-Dozier. 

Research shows that the presence of SROs or school police officers contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline by amplifying arrests for noncriminal, youthful behaviors, especially among Black students. 

Board member Vidhya Szymkowiak said she supports creating a school district police force but she would want the board to adopt a multi-faceted approach to school safety in addition to hiring officers. 

Board members Marcie Crow, Richard McClure and Shannon Yeakel expressed clear support for the proposal. Others were uncommitted or absent

Parents and community members are divided when it comes to creating the district’s personal police force. 

Some parents asked for more transparency about the district’s financial dealings and the introduction of new items on the agenda. 

“My biggest concern was just finding out, in reading an agenda, that the school is planning to create its own police department within the district, without any period of comment to allow parents or the public give an input on this,”  Lynne Williams, a parent with three children in the district told PublicSource before the meeting. 

The district, spanning several North Hills suburbs, has a general fund budget of $193 million and enrolls around 8,500 students. In September, the district announced a plan to eliminate the $10 per-capita tax, levied on every adult residing in the district, for five years. The tax cut will result in a loss of $400,000 in revenue for the district, according to reporting from TribLive. 

Speaking before the meeting, Brian Sullivan, a parent with an eighth grader in the district, said he is concerned the district will vote on the police force with minimal public input and that the district should instead have extensive public discussions before taking action. 

District parent Brian Sullivan speaks against implementing the police force at the public workshop session on Wednesday, Oct. 18. (Photo by: Lajja Mistry/PublicSource)

Sara Ecker, a parent with one child in the district said the proposal should be implemented. “The harsh reality is that our children and the staff within our district simply are not safe without it,” she said. 

Five other community members also expressed similar sentiments in support of the proposal. 

Many local districts, including Baldwin-Whitehall and Plum Borough school districts, have implemented similar programs in recent years. NASD adopted various security measures over the past year. All school campuses are equipped with a RAPTOR system that scans driver’s licenses of visitors, TribLive reports. The district introduced new lock systems and conducts monthly fire and safety drills. NASD also uses an anonymous tipline called Safe2Say Something. 

“You can have the technology, have the physical barriers, you can have the access control systems, but you really do need the personnel on premises to address it,” a parent said during the meeting.

Some parents think the proposal is politically motivated and an effort to sway votes before the school board general election in November. 

Five board seats are up for election this year. Incumbents Libby Blackburn, Michael Weniger and Crow are running as Republicans. Incumbent Elizabeth Warner is running as a Democrat. Each faces a challenger from the opposing party. Yeakel is not seeking reelection.

“I think they’re using some fear tactics for people who vote far right.”

New candidates Anisha Shah, a physician; Robert Gibbs, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh; Jaime Martinez, a community advocate and Sylvana Bonner, a manager at FedEx won their primaries. 

The primary results suggest the board may flip from a Republican majority to a Democrat majority, some involved parents surmise. 

“I think they’re using some fear tactics for people who vote far right. That they’re trying to make it feel like the schools are very, very scary places, and that we need police in the schools,” said Williams. 

Board President Libby Blackburn, a Republican, said some board members were in favor of police officers in closed executive sessions and were against it in public meetings. 

Parents want investments in staffing, mental health

Some district parents think the funds for a new police force could be better utilized for other issues, such as staffing. 

North Allegheny is struggling to fill shortages in areas such as transportation, special education support staff, substitute teachers and library aides, according to reporting from TribLive. 

In November last year, NASD cut, from 12 to six, its library secretary paraprofessional staff.

Melinda Wedde, a parent, said the district should prioritize building repairs and violence prevention programs instead of investing in a new police force and cutting library staff. 

“Repairing facilities has not been brought up as a priority … and cutting of library staff is still a sore spot,” she said. 

North Allegheny’s strategic plan for 2022-29 recommends development of a multi-year renovation plan for elementary schools and a five-year facilities plan for each campus. It includes updating existing facilities, playgrounds and an annual landscaping plan. 

“Repairing facilities has not been brought up as a priority … and cutting of library staff is still a sore spot.”

The district currently has 18 open positions, including two bus drivers, two special education support staff and eight substitute teachers. 

Sullivan said having armed officers will increase suicide risks among students and the district should take a more proactive role in providing additional mental health supports.

Blackburn said the board has asked Superintendent Hyland to assess other aspects such as social workers and mental health resources and would follow up with him.

Williams said her children could not access mental health supports when needed and the district should hire more psychologists, counselors and social workers who can help families navigate mental health resources. 

“I really do believe that schools should not be in the business of running a police department, but that their business is loving and supporting and educating our children,” said Williams. 

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...