BUTLER COUNTY – A western Pennsylvania school district whose board voted to eventually arm its school police instead got a court order over the weekend so officers in each of its schools could carry guns Monday in the wake of last week’s school shooting in Connecticut.
Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr’s Sunday court order affecting the Butler Area School District and another for police in the South Butler County School District, both about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, were first reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Butler Area Superintendent Michael Strutt told The Associated Press that his 7,500-student district about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh had an armed officer in each of its 11 elementary and three secondary schools on Monday, and likely will going forward.
That district’s board had voted Dec. 10 to begin a months-long process to arm its police, even before Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother at her home before bursting into Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 pupils and six staff and then shot himself.
“The shooting is absolutely tragic. I can barely contain my emotions every time I think about those children and what happened to them,” Strutt told the AP. “The tragedy just expedited the process in our school district” of arming its police officers.
Previously, the Butler Area district had an unarmed security guard in each of its elementary schools and two or three unarmed school police officers — all retired Pennsylvania state troopers — at each of its secondary schools, Strutt said.
Sunday’s court order allows those officers to “carry their own weapons on the job until such time as the school district purchases weapons for them,” Strutt said.
The school board has an executive session scheduled later Monday to discuss the district’s long-term security plans, but Strutt said discussions he’s had with the school board lead him to believe “it will be a permanent thing with the school police officers being armed in every school.”
The district had a roster of 18 retired troopers it used as school police, so finding one for each school on Monday did not require hiring any new officers, Strutt said.
He said the district already knew it would have to pay about $25,000 annually for a professional police liability rider to the district’s insurance policy when the vote was taken last week to eventually arm the police.
“It’s an additional strain on the budget when the budget’s already tight. But you have to establish your priorities and keeping the children safe is the number one priority,” Strutt said.
Thomas King, the solicitor for the neighboring — and much smaller — South Butler district, said officials there got a court order so two of their three police officers, both also retired state troopers, could carry weapons.
King said South Butler is a rural district with about 2,900 students in four buildings located on one campus, so the district doesn’t have the same patrolling needs as neighboring Butler Area, which King also represents.
He said superintendents in four other county school districts he represents have been discussing school security, too, though they have different policing situations — some have no municipal police, for example — and are planning accordingly.
South Butler had no plans to arm its police until “the situation in Connecticut exacerbated the need to deal with this. We’ve had conversations over the weekend. All of the superintendents have been speaking with each other.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education doesn’t “sign off on the arming of school police,” according to press secretary Tim Eller. Instead, the school code requires districts to get court authorization for officers to carry weapons. According to a database provided by the department, 130 of 765 school districts, charter schools, and vo-tech schools had officers authorized to carry weapons before the two Butler County districts joined them Monday.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has its own police department and staffs schools with unarmed officers who work closely with city police. Officials with the city district didn’t immediately comment on whether any security changes might be forthcoming after the Connecticut shooting.
The Philadelphia City School District has 501 school police and 85 school security officers, but none are authorized to carry guns, according to the database.