Pittsburgh Public Schools police chief laments board decision not to arm school officers

Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Kevin Carter speaks in favor of upholding the district current policy not to arm officers. “No officer, no teacher, no staff member, no administrator should carry a weapon to make our students feel any less safe,” he said. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

There will be no armed school police in the Pittsburgh Public Schools after the district board voted 8-1 Wednesday night against amending the district’s safety policy.

The current policy does not allow the officers to carry firearms.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Chief of Safety George Brown Jr., who was in favor of the controversial proposal to arm his force, said after the meeting: “Let’s pray nothing happens.”

Brown has publicly lobbied the board in the past month to allow the 22 officers on his force to carry guns, saying weapons are necessary to keep students and staff safe from outside threats. He also cited 20 incidents in which his officers have confiscated guns from students in district buildings and an incident two weeks ago when guns were taken from three young men at a district football game at the George K. Cupples Stadium in the South Side.

The lone board member to support arming the school police was Cynthia Falls, who cited incidents at Carrick High School when she was a teacher there from 1995 to 2010. She recalled a day when it was believed that a robbery suspect from a nearby shopping center might have been in the school.

She said she agreed with Brown that school police need guns to keep “the bad guys out” and noted that the district provided the officers with bulletproof vests.  “We expect them to possibly take a bullet but not have firearms to defend themselves or students or our staff,” Falls said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Cynthia Falls (right) was the only board member to vote in support of arming district police. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Board President Regina Holley and members Moira Kaleida, Kevin Carter, Veronica Edwards and Sala Udin reiterated their opposition to arming school police, a position they had first taken at the Oct. 1 policy committee meeting.

They expressed concerns that guns would change the atmosphere in the schools and endanger black students and students with disabilities.

Brown said in an interview after the meeting that he was “insulted” by comments made by board and community members that the lives of black children would be threatened by school police.

“I am a black man who was born and raised in the Hill District,” he said.

He said his officers want to protect the district’s children, not harm them.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Chief of School Safety George Brown Jr. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Brown, in his interview with PublicSource, pointed to numerous other districts in the county that have armed school resource officers in their buildings. He said he prepared a use-of-force policy for his officers but that the board did not read it. Brown also said all officers would have undergone psychological testing before being permitted to carry a gun.

The chief said he will meet with his officers in the coming days before deciding whether to press school leaders further on the issue.

Holley and Udin thanked the school police and said they respected the work that they do.

“Our vote tonight does not mean that we are not supportive of our security staff,” Holley said. “Our vote tonight will be one in which we are telling our security staff: ‘Continue doing the work that you are doing.’ But, for me, it does not mean that I’m going to let you strap a gun to your side.”

Udin said the idea of arming school police could not “be seen outside of the context of black unarmed men and women being killed at the hands of police officers.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools board president Regina Holley voted against arming district police officers. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Holley and Udin also noted that none of the scores of people who spoke at the public hearing on Monday supported the proposal to arm police.

“Not a single parent came through asking that this be done. Not a single student. Not a single teacher. Only law enforcement came forward asking for police to be armed,” Udin said.

“I think that officers who feel so frightened that they cannot de-escalate and handle situations presented by school students should seriously consider perhaps another line of work.”

The topic was brought to the board in 2016 via a letter from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers [PFT] executive committee, which proposed changing the district policy to allow officers to carry firearms. The PFT represents the officers.

Despite what appeared to be overwhelming board opposition at the Oct. 1 policy committee meeting, Brown continued to argue at Monday’s public hearing that the officers should be armed to protect students and staff from dangerous intruders who could make their way into the schools and because students are showing up at school and football games with loaded weapons.

After Wednesday’s vote, he said one of the young men arrested at the recent football game was a 17-year-old student and that all three had guns in their waistbands.

The board was not swayed by any of that information. Board members Linda Wrenn, Sylvia Wilson and Terry Kennedy also voted against arming officers.

In addition to the board majority, the proposal to arm school police was opposed by the NAACP, Education Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union and Education Rights Network.

Wanda Henderson, chair of the Equity Advisory Panel (left), and Pamela Harbin, of the Education Rights Network and parent (right), watch as board members vote against arming school police officers on Wednesday. “This is a win for children to be in safe and supportive schools,” Harbin said. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

The ACLU issued a statement applauding the Pittsburgh board for voting against arming officers.

“Everyone wants our children to attend school in a safe environment. We can achieve that goal without school police officers carrying weapons,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The presence of police in schools already has a significant negative impact on young people, especially children of color and children with disabilities. Arming those officers compounds an existing problem.”

The Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Police are currently working on a memorandum of understanding [MOU] between the entities concerning emergency responses. Chris Togneri, Pittsburgh Public Safety Department spokesman, wrote in an email that Pittsburgh Police “provided a signed MOU to the district over the summer” and that the district recently returned it to the city with suggested edits. The city is now reviewing the edits.

Togneri said the department cannot estimate response times but that “police and all related Public Safety departments would respond quickly and in large numbers should there ever be a shooting incident in any school, public or private.”

Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or mary@publicsource.org.

  • vmacfarlane

    School Police need to realize the Security Officers in the schools handle ALL situations until the school police drive to the scene of the issue. There is a huge difference between Police that are Criminal Officers and School Officers working with children. school Police that drive around looking for kids cutting school until they get a call. It’s all about money – they would get paid more while the little man keeping the schools safe are not recognized.