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Pittsburgh Says No to Arming School Police

After the February shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school, anxious school administrators and other public officials have pushed to heighten security by hiring armed school police. Yet, such proposals predate the 2018 school shootings, as do corresponding public concerns with placing armed police in schools.

Harms to students associated with school police seemingly outweigh any benefit. Arming them potentially compounds these harms, threatening students’ physical safety and sending kids a damaging message.

Thankfully, reason recently prevailed at the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).

On October 24, the PPS board of Directors voted 8-1 to reject a proposal to arm school police with guns. The vote came after three years of debate.

Back in September 2015, the executive board of Pittsburgh’s Federation of Teachers (PFT), which represents the district’s 22 school officers, quietly adopted a resolution pushing to rescind a long-standing district ban on school police carrying guns. The executive board did so without consulting district teachers. After learning of the resolution, Pittsburgh School Board Policy Committee Chair Moira Kaleida, who opposed the idea, insisted that the resolution be debated with public transparency.

For more than a year, the discussion sat dormant, until March of 2017, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publicly endorsed the resolution. ACLU-PA’s Harold Jordan responded with an op-ed, “Don’t Arm School Police,” thereby beginning a public debate.

During summer 2017, resolution proponents, including district police Chief George Brown, began lobbying school board members to change the gun policy. By spring of 2018, Chief Brown submitted a proposal, resulting in preparations for a formal vote in the fall. On October 1, the PPS Board held a special meeting to hear from experts on both sides of the issue, including Chief Brown, Harold Jordan of ACLU-PA, and a representative of Firearms Owners Against Crime. Chief Brown argued that guns were necessary “tools of the job” to protect students from outside harms. Jordan countered that there is no evidence showing that armed officers prevent school shootings—a driving concern among many school administrators. He added that when police officers carry guns in schools, it sends a hostile message to students, making them feel more policed than protected.

Jordan also observed that, during the debate, gun proponent arguments had vacillated suddenly from school police wanting the same tools as city police to stopping outside shooters to defending against students who may be taking medications, such as anti-depressants. He contended that guns would harden schools to the detriment of children—particularly Black students and those with disabilities, who already experience disproportionate discipline and arrests.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, Black students overall and Black students with disabilities are arrested approximately four times more than fellow white students in the same categories. According to school district data, 938 students were arrested during the 2015-2016 school year; 384 were students with disabilities and 80 percent were black students.

Though ostensibly hired for security, school police spend a majority of their time interacting with students on non-safety matters, including discipline. Increasingly, officers with arrest and citation authority administer to issues once referred to a principal, resulting in criminal records for students. Consequently, police involvement can often criminalize normal school-age behaviors. Arming school police also sends a very strong and negative message to students that firearms are necessary for addressing student conduct. Community members strongly echoed this sentiment on October 22 during public statements to the board, two days before the vote. In front of the school board building, the parent-led Education Rights Network /OnePA held a protest, with posted photos of black children shot by police. The board heard statements from more than 70 speakers—parents, educators, doctors, activists, and officers—most voicing staunch opposition to the proposal. Numerous speakers feared for their children’s safety, pointing out the far-too-common reality of overzealous police shooting and killing unarmed Black children.

During discussion leading up to the vote, Board President Dr. Regina Holley thanked school police for their service, expressing her faith that they could do their jobs effectively without guns. She assured the room that she’d taken the decision seriously and noted the importance of the public's input, highlighting that not a single parent, teacher, or child had asked that school police be armed. The only presenters in favor of the proposal were Pittsburgh district police.

Board Vice President Sala Udin suggested that school officers who feel they cannot do their job without a gun should consider another line of work. He also shared that, while weighing this proposal, he could not mentally erase the media images of violence against students at the hands of police.

The firearms vote comes just two weeks after a settlement between Allegheny County’s Woodland Hills School District and students alleging extreme verbal abuse and physical violence. One incident captured on video shows a 15-year-old student restrained by the principal while a resource officer shocks him repeatedly with a Taser.

These alarming events are not isolated and, thus, elevate the stakes in a national debate over arming school police. Currently, Baltimore is also evaluating the possible physical and psychological consequences of allowing guns in schools.

If student safety is the goal, schools must rethink employing armed police. Without guns, there is zero chance of a school officer shooting a student—or losing track of their weapon at school, as has happened numerous times across the country. These odds change the moment schools allow firearms inside their walls.

The Pittsburgh Public School Board has done the right thing by rejecting this harmful proposal.

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