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District may arm trained civilians

Altoona Area is only one moving to allow security guards to carry guns on campus

Altoona Area is the only school district in Blair County moving to allow trained civilian security guards to carry guns in school.

Other area districts won’t be arming civilian security guards, but they might employ school resource officers or contract with law enforcement agencies for personnel authorized to carry weapons.

There are three classes of school security in the state:

Security guards are civilian, non-police classified school support personnel without full police powers.

School police officers are em­ployed by a school district and have been granted powers by a county judge to act as a police officer.

School resource officers are contracted from local, county or state law enforcement agencies and assigned to schools.

This month, over the objections of some gun-control groups, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law clarifying that civilian security guards with proper training can carry a weapon on school property.

Last year, the Senate led the charge on advancing measures to increase school safety and security in public schools after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Through Act 44 of 2018, security measures, including a new School Safety and Security Grant program were created.

But a recent memorandum from the Department of Education had interpreted provisions related to school security guards in that legislation as not having the authority to carry a firearm. School police officers were interpreted as the only personnel to carry guns.

To ensure that ability for security guards to carry guns, Senate Bill 621 was passed this year through both legislative chambers and signed by the governor on July 2.

In the Senate, the bill finally passed 30-20, with Sens. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, voting in favor of it. In the House, it passed 116-83, with Reps. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona; Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg; Frank Burns, D-Johnstown; Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon; and Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; voting in favor of it.

The amended law ensures that no school security guard is prevented — with proper certifications — from carrying a firearm.

For civilian security guards to carry a gun in school, they must complete training offered by the National Association of School Resource Officers, or an equivalent course of instruction approved by the state that complies with the Lethal Weapons Training Act.

Altoona Area has long had its own school police force and has moved to train some security guards and greeters to carry lethal weapons, Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said.

After the Parkland school shooting, Prijatelj said the district began sending greeters from the middle school and high school to be trained in accordance with Act 235 lethal weapon training. The amended law en­sures that those armed greeters remain in compliance with state law.

Other Blair County schools are not jumping at the chance to train their civilian security guards. Instead, they are continuing to rely on their own police forces or school resource officers to carry lethal weapons.

“No, our security guards will not carry a gun,” Bell­wood-Antis Superin­ten­dent Tom McInroy said. “We will continue as we have this past school year. It worked well, and our data does not suggest that we need to change at this point.”

Bellwood-Antis has two retired state troopers who work opposite weeks and have the required certificates to carry firearms.

“They do a great job at keeping everyone safe, as well as building positive relationships with students, parents, community members and employees,” McInroy said.

The Claysburg-Kimmel School District has a school resource officer through Greenfield Township, the same as last year.

The Williamsburg Com­mu­nity School District hired an armed school police officer in June for the 2019-20 school year. He will work between both the elementary and the junior-senior high schools each day.

Spring Cove School Dis­trict Superintendent Betsy Baker said the district is “extremely happy with our current school police service. Ideally, we hope to expand school police services, as opposed to armed security, later this year through grant funding.”

Hollidaysburg Area also hires school resource officers who carry guns, and because of secure entrances to buildings, it does not hire security guards.

Opponents to the law argue that Act 67 of 2019 lets the door open for ambiguity in regard to whether districts could hire teachers as independent contractors and thus lead to schools with armed teachers.

In addition, the Education Law Center, which advocates for vulnerable student populations, and CeaseFirePA, which supports increased gun restrictions to reduce gun violence, said the legislation would lead to more guns in schools and more opportunities for weapons to accidentally fall into the hands of students. They said that, because of biases, students of color and students with disabilities could be at a greater risk of having a security officer pull a gun on them.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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