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Armed police in schools varies by district, but legislation may change that

By: Jen Johnson

DUBOIS, Pa. -- Schools are traditionally thought of to be safe places, but recent, traumatic events have forced people to take a closer look at what can be done to avoid violence in the classroom.

Keeping students, teachers and staff safe is a priority for school administrators, but the way districts work to keep their students safe can be different. Two local school systems have recently took bold steps to avoid potential tragedies.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting shook communities across the United States to the core. The unthinkable, terrifying final moments of 20 children and half-dozen adults caught everyone's attention as a gunman moved through the building, killing those 26 people.

Some 345 miles away from Sandy Hook Elementary sits Wasson Elementary School in DuBois and Admiral Peary Vocational-Technical School in Ebensburg. Both schools have recently been involved in the guns-in-schools debate.

At Admiral Peary, an administrator disarmed a student who brought a gun into the building. At Wasson, armed school police officers are now patrolling the halls, something students there haven't seen before.

Wasson is one of seven elementary schools within the DuBois Area School District. Superintendent J. Mark Heckman said 400 children learn in the building alone.

"When we got the news of Sandy Hook, we realized that something could happen in a small area," Heckman said. "It could happen here too."

When a recent school vulnerability study revealed the need for more security within the elementary system, DuBois district leaders and the school board took action.

"We all believed that having an officer in the building would be a great way to build that armor for us," Heckman said.

DuBois already relied on a full-time school resource officer in its middle and high schools, but with the contract with DuBois city police set to expire at the end of 2013, school leaders explored their options to keep their children in all buildings safe.

DuBois city leaders proposed an hourly rate of $57.54 per full-time officer for the 2014 school year. The district ultimately hired retired Pennsylvania state troopers for less than half that, at $22.67 an hour per full-time officer.

The new deal also meant more armed officers, with some of them providing security at DuBois elementary schools for the very first time.

"Armed security is a visible deterrent," Heckman said. "When a student walks through the hallway and sees an officer with a gun, they know they're being protected. It also sends a message to the community that we have someone who is going to protect our students at all costs. It's a last resort."

According to the advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary there have been 44 school shootings nationwide.

There were 13 in the first six weeks of 2014 alone. That's the same amount of time DuBois school police officer Bill Tangren has been on the job.

"I've had at least once on every day that I've been here, at least one parent, and as many as five or six, who have thanked me for being here, and also told me how much better they feel dropping their children off," Tangren said.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in February 2013, 234 school districts, charter schools, vocational-technical schools and intermediate units had employed one or more officers.

Of some 1,923 school security officers, school resource officers or school police officers in those buildings, 275 were authorized to carry a gun.

Some experts have pointed out that there was not one documented case of a multiple homicides in schools when an armed guard was present.

"It changes the climate," Heckman said.

More potential changes could be coming to the DuBois school officers in the coming days. One of DuBois school officers could be working full-time at Jeff Tech, a nearby vo-tech school in Reynoldsville, Jefferson County, where DuBois sends students.

The cost of place the officer at Jeff Tech comes from a $40,000 state grant. If the grant is approved by the school board, Heckman said the district will then employ one part time and five full-time school police officers.

At Admiral Peary Vo-Tech in Cambria County, Executive Director Ken Jubas said his safety philosophy is a bottom-up approach.

"It comes down to communication," Jubas said.

At vocational schools, students use saws, knives, razor blades, even flammable gases when they learn in the classroom, Jubas said. There is great accountability of not only the tools, but also the kids.

"Staff need to be aware," Jubas said. "Is something wrong today? What's wrong with that kid? Ordinarily, he's fun and games, [but] is he quiet today? Are they talking in the corner? I believe that I've prevented more just by calling a couple kids in and saying, 'Hey guys, this is what I heard. What's up?' In most cases, when kids are planning fights, it's everybody else planning the fight. It's not even the two kids."

But last month was a first for Jubas, when on a Friday afternoon the school guidance counselor got a tip from a student that a 16-year-old boy from Blacklick Valley had a loaded gun in the building.

Within minutes, Jubas stepped inside the student's classroom. He kept it low key and pretended he needed student volunteers.

"I made some small talk with the students as I walked into the study hall and kind of located where he was and I talked to some of the students and said 'Who wants to participate in a survey?'" Jubas said.

The student willing volunteered to take part in the survey, Jubas said. Once isolated in his office, Jubas said the teenager told him that he brought the gun to school for protection. The student said he was fearful of being jumped by other kids.

"And I lift up his shirt and I'm like 'Oh, my God,' ya know, there it is," Jubas said. "None the less that it was loaded and it was loaded and ready to go."

Even though there were never any threats made to Admiral Peary students or staff, Jubas admitted it was a wakeup call.

"We let people indoors and we just point to the office," Jubas said. "Are we at our posts? Are teachers walking kids out to the buses? Are they supervising the hallways? Are they just making quick checks in the bathrooms?," Jubas said.

The 16-year-old student was expelled from school for a year and has a long road ahead of him, despite what he did was flat out wrong, Jubas said. He hopes the student will also turn this bad decision into a teachable moment.

"The last thing I ever want to do is deny a kid an opportunity," Jubas said. "He was a welding student, he did a great job, [and] he was a solid B student. He never had a problem here with discipline, [had a] great demeanor, [and is a] good kid. I hope we have the opportunity to educate him because he's worth saving."

While armed security guards may not be the best options for all school districts, some of our state lawmakers believe one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to protect our children and school staff while they're in school is through the use of retired law enforcement officers.

Retired police officers and state troopers often already have their own health care and pension benefits and many can retire relatively young, after 25 years of service.

A proposed bill, which is still in a general assembly committee, would provide school districts prioritized money if they hire retired law enforcement officers to serve as school police officers.

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Edgar Snyder

Washington Times