A Pittsburgh-area school is bringing more guns — and more police — into the classroom

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcer/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Gateway School District plans to arm its 13-member security team. Photo from Steven Lane of The Associated Press.

After the December 2012 mass murder of 20 six- and seven year-old children, and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Massachusetts, school boards across the country began taking the advice of people like Wayne LaPierre and Asa Hutchinson, who called for an armed guard in every American school. Pennsylvania was no different. Of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, WPXI reported in 2014 that the number of districts with armed guards had risen from 118 to 141 between 2012 and 2014.

But while the number of armed Pennsylvania districts was on the rise, those districts typically armed singular administrators, or small numbers of school resource officers — cops, often with arrest powers, on contract with local law enforcement. This week, Gateway School District, in Pittsburgh’s east suburbs, got court approval for something different: it’s own 13-member, armed police force.

“We believe it’s our duty to do everything within our power to adequately protect the students, the teachers and the staff of the Gateway School District,” said Gateway school board member Chad Stubenbort in an interview with WPXI this week.

As ACLU-PA spelled out in its report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” bringing a law enforcement mentality into schools is a dubious practice — one that has proven to sacrifice fairness, due process, and preventative problem solving in an academic environment. Inserting firearms into the mix only exacerbates the problems with this mentality.

Despite such arguments — and others, which you can delve into on ACLU-PA’s “Police In Schools” landing page — Gateway decided to go forward with its plan. And Allegheny County Common Pleas Court President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning approved its petition to do so.

“It seems to me the only proper thing for the court to do here is to sign the order and let you proceed,” Judge Manning said during a hearing on the matter this week. “Obviously, having no protection for children in schools is definitely not better.”

That’s one way to think about it. There are others.

In written testimony submitted to the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on School Safety, and later reproduced in “Beyond Zero Tolerance,” Dr. Wayde Killmeyer, superintendent of Clairton City School District, explained: “[O]ur students come to us hungry, tired, from homes that are chaotic and where education is not a high priority,” he wrote. “Dealing with these human needs has to be a higher priority than putting an armed guard in our halls.”

He continued: “Although safety has to be one of our top priorities, a show of force is not necessarily the best way of dealing with it in our community.”


Cecilia Coleman and her son, Joseph Hall. Hall was sentenced to prison in 2008 for a crime he says he did not commit. Photo from Sarah Huny Young at Pittsburgh City Paper.
  • From The Morning Call: “After 18 months in jail, mentally ill man finally gets court-ordered treatment”

“Norristown is one of two state hospitals with secure facilities in which incompetent defendants can get the psychiatric help they need to regain their grip on reality, a requirement for their cases to proceed. But Norristown and Torrance State Hospital in the west both face bottlenecks, as demand far outpaces the number of beds they have, and the state has been unwilling to add to that inventory.”

  • From Pittsburgh City Paper: “City Paper reviews the decade-old case of a convicted murderer maintaining his innocence: ‘Things don’t add up in this case.’”

“In the two years that followed, Strothers’ story would change drastically several times, even during testimony he gave under oath; ultimately, during the 2008 criminal trial, he said that Joseph Hall hadn’t been in his car at all that day, that no one had fired guns from his car, and that police had coerced those earlier statements to the contrary. But it was that first statement recorded by detectives on Dec. 20, 2006 (along with a second recording made two weeks later), that would form the bulk of the case against Joseph Hall.”

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.