This story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter from Spotlight PA’s State College Regional Office covering the top news and events in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up here free of charge.
ALTOONA — At least two Pennsylvania school districts now allow their police officers to store and use semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s on school property, arguing that the guns will help protect students from potential shooters.
On Jan. 17, the Altoona Area School District School Board updated the district’s policy to allow firearms, following in the footsteps of the Pittston Area School District, which placed shotguns and AR-15s in its schools last fall.
“We want to be proactive with the actions we take,” said Bill Pfeffer, the director of safety and security for Altoona schools. “We’re just trying to make sure everyone is safe in our buildings.”
Three of the school district’s 12 security guards are allowed to use the guns. The force provides security throughout the district, which includes 11 school buildings. One officer is also a weapons instructor, according to the district.
Altoona Superintendent Charles Prijatelj told Spotlight PA that the long corridors of school buildings require district officials to have access to semi-automatic rifles.
“When we have an active shooter, it’s dangerous to send a patrolman down the hall with a pistol,” Prijatelj said, adding that semi-automatic rifles are more accurate than handguns when shooting at long range.
However, some research suggests that officers are generally imprecise with their firearms — often due to the dynamic and stressful scenarios that active shootings involve.
Still, police and officers tend to argue that they need the guns to withstand the threats they face. Semi-automatic rifles have been used in mass shootings across the country – including at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“I think they should be in every school district,” said Steve Stuckey, 48, a Blair County native whose nieces and nephews attend the Altoona County school. “With all the school shootings, the only way to stop them is to arm the people who can stop them.”
Altoona Metropolitan Police also have access to semi-automatic rifles, according to Matthew Plummer, the department’s public information officer.
Priyatelj said that the school district officials also need them because they are the first responders. “Our [school district] Police department is the first call,” he said. The Altoona Municipal Police serves as a “backup”.
School officials said the three school officials certified to use the guns would not carry them. But the guns are “secured” with officers, officials said, possibly in their cars or in safes inside the school. In the event of an active shooting, these officers would have to get the guns from where they are kept, Priyatelj said.
He declined to say where the guns are stored and whether officers will transport the guns between the school and their homes.
Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an organization that works to end gun violence, said that while he understands county officials are trying to “put the lives of students first,” the decision “does nothing about it.” to increase the safety of the students”.
He pointed to the failure of the heavily armed police to respond quickly to the shooting in Uvalde, which killed 19 children and two adults.
He said a better approach is to keep guns away from the people committing these crimes.
Ashad Hajela is a Report for America Corps member and writes on rural affairs for Spotlight PA’s State College Regional Office.
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