Some support armed guards in South Western schools but ask if more is needed

FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2018 file photo, a police car drives near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., as students return to class for the first time since a former student opened fire there with an assault weapon. Calls to encourage school districts to add more armed teachers and officers have intensified since the shooting rampage at this school that left 17 students and educators dead. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Many parents and community members were open to the idea of armed officers in South Western School District at a community forum Wednesday night, but they wondered if taking that step should be a last resort.

While an officer could serve as protection for students in the event of a shooter, some asked what the district is doing to keep a shooter out in the first place.

They voiced concerns over not exploring preventive measures that address vulnerabilities in school buildings and the root causes of school violence.

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About 75 parents and community members attended the forum at Emory H. Markle Intermediate School in Penn Township on Wednesday, June 13.

South Western Superintendent Jay Burkhart and Bob Gano, owner of G-Force Investigations — the company that would be contracted to provide armed officers to the district — were on hand to answer questions.

How are schools vulnerable? One major concern was how the district was identifying problem areas that could make schools susceptible to attacks.

Installing metal detectors to prevent guns from coming in is an option, but Burkhart said it could create more of a risk if there are backups at the doors from nonharmful items students are bringing.

He said shooters are not just entering with students but are aware of building weaknesses, such as knowing when the doors are unlocked. The district must be committed to not propping doors open and considering protections such as bulletproof glass.

"We're as strong as our weakest link," he said.

Forum participants agreed, with one wondering if armed guards would create a false sense of security without addressing the real issues.

Burkhart acknowledged one of the most pressing concerns — the features of the high school. Given the large number of doors and windows, the district is looking into what is needed — more alarms, a panic bar on doors, cameras?

Some say they are not against a guard but believe the school should have an assessment of its weak spots first, which is something state police or G-Force can do.

Following the forum, the school board gave approval at its monthly planning meeting to contract with G-Force for the assessment. 

While the district can be committed to safety and explore all precautions, Burkhart admitted that he is working with limited knowledge.

"I have the fears, I have the concerns, and I have the worries that you all have — but I don't have the answers," he said. 

Dr. Jay Burkhart will be South Western School District's new superintendent starting in August.

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Why now? Several framed the discussion on the need for armed guards around the fact that it's a different time people live in now, with more dangers.

But others challenged that notion, saying school violence has been a problem for decades, so why act now?

School board President Vanessa Berger reminded the community that security officers are not new to South Western schools.

Up until two years ago, the district had a school resource officer employed for eight or nine years and, "it gave us a great peace of mind," she said, when reached later after the board meeting.

Burkhart said the district has simply met "the tipping point."

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Culture of fear: Some worried if armed guards would contribute to a culture of fear for students.

The district plans to let students meet guards first so they can ask questions, hear about the guard's role and let them acclimate to student culture.

Additionally, Berger said schools have a climate survey, completed within recent weeks, that allows parents and students to give feedback on their environment.

Still, several at the forum were concerned that the district is not taking enough of a proactive approach to changing school culture, with a focus on mental health, claiming bullying is not properly addressed.

Berger said the district hired a full-time social worker last year and would love the opportunity to add another if they are able. She was "amazed at the workload in one year."

Laura Keczmerski and Rose Praydis, both of West Manheim Township, appreciated the forum but were interested in looking at the root causes.

Praydis said she's on the fence about armed guards, noting the district is "still addressing the symptoms" rather than focusing on causes such as behavioral issues.

"Safety has to be the No. 1 issue," Keczmerski said.

"But at what cost?" Praydis added.

Why G-Force? G-Force, which has retired officers as a majority if its employees, can provide expertise without pulling from local police forces, which are spread too thin to fully staff schools.

The district had to let go of its school resource officer because township police said "he was needed in the greater community full time," Berger wrote in an email Thursday, June 14.

"The reality is, there's not enough people out there," Gano said.

Many at the forum were concerned about whether or not the training provided to G-Force guards will be adequate.

"These shooters continue to evolve. What was proper protocol five years ago is not proper protocol anymore," Gano said, assuring everyone that training will always be ongoing.

Susan King, of Penn Township, hopes there will be anti-discrimination training as well.

Berger said she heard diversity training was a part of what was required for G-Force, and she knows it's the board's priority as well.

Burkhart explained that the role of the guard each day would be to monitor the front doors but also have eyes on the school throughout the day — looking at parked cars, seeing if trees are high enough to provide someone access to the roof, talking with counselors, going to "hot spots" to stop bullying and talking to local patrolling police.

The G-Force guards will not replace police, he said, adding, "It's another avenue." 

To make sure students and teachers also have as much training as possible, Burkhart said schools will continue doing active-shooter drills and having updated training.

The board does not yet have a projected cost for hiring the armed guards, according to Berger.

Board members are still weighing the options and have not made a decision, said Berger and board vice president Thomas Zimmerman.

Burkhart also noted that, if contracted, the district would go through legal counsel to come up with a policy for guards, which would be available for a 30-day public review.

He has also said that additional public meetings will be held before a decision, if necessary.