Whether or not to arm school security personnel has been discussed by area school leaders in the past, and, in light of the tragedy Wednesday at a Westmoreland County high school, the topic is again coming to the forefront.
A 16-year-old sophomore stabbed and injured 21 of his fellow students and one adult at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville on Wednesday, sending a wave of urgency over area schools given the close proximity.
“As a person who is a chief of security, I can tell you what happened at Franklin Regional can happen anywhere,” said Jeff Myers, security chief at Fayette County Career and Technical Institute. “Security personnel must be constantly vigilant and prepared for any scenario.”
The Joint Operating Committee at FCCTI in February voted in favor of allowing its security chief to carry a concealed weapon. Myers admits guns can act as a deterrent but may not be appropriate for a situation where a student is wielding a knife.
“The best tool for this situation would be non-lethal, such as pepper spray or Taser, to subdue the suspect,” Myers said. “School security personnel need many tools at their disposal to react to all kinds of possible situations.”
Myers also serves a school director in the Albert Gallatin Area School District, where he indicates directors have discussed arming building security guards. In April 2013, directors in the district acted unanimously to authorize the installation of secured gun safes at the high school and both of the district’s middle schools, with access specifically limited to the district’s school police officer and district security guards, who have completed state firearms certification.
“As board president, I’m trying to get armed personnel in all buildings. Anytime you can stop something from happening, by any means, it saves lives. It can often take a brief second to subdue a perpetrator if you have the right tools,” Myers said.
In the Uniontown Area School District, directors will vote on April 21 whether or not to allow school administration to advertise positions for hiring personnel to serve as armed security guards.
Dr. Charles Machesky, district superintendent, explained candidates for the positions would be retired municipal or state police officers with state firearms certification.
“We have a measure of security in our schools; however, nothing is fool proof. God forbid someone comes in the building with a weapon,” said Machesky.
He continued, “I am a firm believer and advocate in this atmosphere that our schools exist in today you can have all the preparation drills you want, but what are you going to do when faced with the issue. We are fortunate to have a wonderful police force in the city, but it could be minutes before their arrival. We need to get a presence in our buildings that could respond in seconds.”
Machesky points out the incident in Franklin Regional School District demonstrates school violence knows no geographic or socio-economic boundaries.
Tom George, a Uniontown Area School Board member, said although he does not agree with arming security in public schools, he does concur with Machesky.
“Mental illness is a tough barrier,” he said. “It’s always tragic when a child comes to school with dangerous thoughts.”
George said he believes districts must be prepared to counsel at-risk students, but he said help from parents is needed.
“Parental involvement and a close home environment would stop a lot of delinquent behavior.”