HARRISBURG – The head of the Luzerne County Safe Schools Committee and others told a joint state Senate committee on Wednesday they support placing a trained armed officer in every school in the state.
Appearing before the committees on Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness and Education, Joseph DeLucca said “the presence of an armed guard alone can act as a deterrent.”
DeLucca is a former teacher who also serves as the director of Federal, State and Nonpublic Programs for the Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18.
“As school attacks continue to escalate – 31 school shootings in the U.S. since Columbine in 1999 – districts are reacting with different means to achieve the same end: increased security cameras, metal detectors, armed guards, locks, doors and bulletproof windows,” he said.
All schools already have some security in place, he said. But without proper training and the means to protect, they are not able to fully defend their school communities.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, who chairs the Senate's Committees on Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness, said in the aftermath of the shootings at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Pennsylvania is compelled to re-examine school safety.
But armed officers are not the only remedy, she said.
“The truth remains that students are more at risk from others inside the schools than from an armed intruder,” said Baker. “Every day kids are falling victim to bullying, abuse, drugs and other threats.”
Michael Silsby, superintendent of the Wallenpaupack Area School District, said that after school shootings in Columbine, Col., Newtown, Conn., and others, “I was asked by many parents if I could ensure the safety of their children at school. Unfortunately, I could not give them the guarantee they wanted. But, what I did pledge to them is that we would continually strive to put in place measures that would make school a safe place.”
Silsby told the panel school districts need to create a supportive, open environment for students and community members, balanced with a “degree of practicality involved. Especially in light of shrinking budgets and increasing demands on resources.”
Mandatory safety drillsTo that end, Donald W. Smith Jr., emergency planning and response management coordinator for the Center for Safe Schools, recommended the Legislature create a law requiring a mandatory number of various safety drills be held in every school annually.
He suggested a total of nine fire drills per year, three of which must occur in the first 60 days of the school year and intruder/active shooter drills should be required at least two times a year, with one of them occurring in the first 10 days of the school year.
In addition, Smith suggested administrators must meet with law enforcement representatives each year to focus on response to active shooter situations.
But this is where DeLucca's recommendation of having armed officers in each school comes into play. “Unfortunately, because many schools across our state have varied response times from local or state police depending on their location, the shooter would not be challenged until too many lives were lost,” said DeLucca, of Pittston Township.
The committees heard testimony from the state secretary of education, state police commissioner, school district superintendents, law enforcement and school district officials and the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
John Bruner, an officer with the South Strabane Township Police Department in Washington County, also said he would recommend an armed police officer in every school “during regular school hours and at all major school functions.”
Some people have suggested arming school staff, including principals, who can serve as a first line of defense. But Joseph Zupancic, an assistant district attorney in Washington County who serves on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and on the Canon-McMillan Board of Education, rejected that idea.
“PSBA believes that if firearms are present in schools to guard against threats,” he said, “they should be carried only by properly trained and certified law enforcement or security professionals.”