Parents left the Upper St. Clair School Board meeting Aug. 22 feeling a mixture of emotions, mainly fueled by fear and apprehension. But their children will be greeted on the first day of school by an armed police officer in each building.
The school board unanimously passed a motion during a lengthy meeting to increase the school police force by three to six full-time officers, along with arming eligible officers.
The regular board meeting was bumped back two days and held in the high school theater to accommodate nearly 58 parents and community members who spoke before hundreds of people in the audience.
Many were there to address a photo seen circulating a week earlier on social media of a student who appeared to be holding a weapon and making threats. Parents had many questions, including whether the unidentified student would be in school the following week. But the board was unable to provide clear answers.
“Many of you know that the district cannot discuss individual students or individual cases,” board President Amy Billerbeck said at the onset of the meeting and reiterated during the public comment session. “If you have concerns about your child or your school, those are best addressed through your building principal. But let me be clear: in the event the district ever believes that any individual or student poses a threat to the school, the district always has and will continue to take all available steps to ensure the safety and wellness and welfare of our students and staff, including restricting access to district schools when necessary.”
Billerbeck said that the board and administration collectively have 24 children in the district.
“Your students will be safe on day one and we’re all sending our kids to school,” Billerbeck said.
Board member Angela Petersen said she understood that many would leave the meeting upset, but that the board’s “hands are tied.”
“I apologize for your frustration, but your frustration is our frustration,” she said.
But some parents were not satisfied and others were concerned about armed officers walking the halls.
The new officers are expected to be in place early this fall, the district said, with plans to use Allegheny County police in the interim to have an armed officer in each school building. The district’s officers are certified municipal police with 919 hours of training and 27 hours of testing. The six total officers are in addition to two school security officers, who will not be authorized to carry weapons under the board’s motion.
The board did not identify the officers or release how much it would cost.
Many parents said they were shocked to learn that armed officers would be in the district. A few parents who said they teach in other districts said they did not support guns in schools, and that they provided a false sense of security. Other parents said their children know police officers carry weapons and the move would make no difference to them.
Resident Rebecca Waldron said she feels comfortable sending her son to school, understanding the board could not discuss any particular student publicly. She called the meeting a “turning point for the community” and said she understood the frustrations echoed throughout each comment. It’s fine to have a plan, Waldron said, but ideas on paper don’t stop terrible things from happening.
“It’s not enough, and I’m just being honest with you,” she said during her public comments to massive cheers, adding that the district has problems with bullying, drugs and sexual assault that are being overlooked.
She also took issue with a lack of clear communication, a sentiment repeated throughout the night.
“You all need to do better,” she added. “The threat is not going to go away.”
Only one student who spoke publicly voiced her apprehension.
Suggestions from the audience ranged from metal detectors to an anonymous student threat reporting system.
A majority of the audience left after the votes to hire officers and for the school police officers to carry firearms.
The board also outlined other safety measures at the start of the meeting, including recommendations from the district’s new chief of school police, Sean Bryson, who is a 1991 Upper St. Clair High School graduate and spent 20 years with the Arlington County police department in Virginia. He joined the district earlier this year and conducted an assessment of current safety and security practices. He made the recommendation for armed officers in each school building.
There are 240 cameras throughout the district, with 40 additional cameras to be installed. Administrators, along with school and township police have access to the feeds. Starting this school year, district buses will also have cameras. The district outlined improvements to emergency communications, along with student support efforts, including a new counselor and new psychologist.
The board said its moves Aug. 22 were not a knee-jerk reaction but rather a result of careful planning.