Officer to carry gun in schools

MILL HALL – The Keystone Central School Board offered a resounding vote of trust in the abilities of full-time school district Police Officer Brandon Coleman on Thursday night, deciding to allow him to carry a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson M&P pistol while on duty.

Also approved by a 7-2 vote was a provision to arm other security personnel with nonlethal methods of control, including tasers, collapsible batons and pepper spray.

The latter action was opposed by board member Charles Rosamilia, who pointed to the $12,000 cost attached to the move and suggested that the district’s tight budget shouldn’t allow the purchase and training required for that type of equipment.

Board member Smith Debbie Smith, who voted for arming Coleman, voted against the purchase of batons and such. After the meeting, Smith said she believes the possibility of using any of those items against a student would be incredibly rare, but she felt uncomfortable with that idea, however remote it might be.

The first-time-ever arming of a school district officer in Keystone Central will occur after Officer Coleman makes the purchase and certifies with the weapon, and after approval of a petition is granted by President Clinton County President Craig Miller.

No timetable was established for activation of the new policy.

The cost of obtaining the gun and certifying with it should not exceed $1,400, according to the terms of the school board’s decision.

The board’s second vote will allow the equipping of its other four full-time district security officers with an X26 Taser, duty belt, belt keepers, retention holster, pepper spray with holder and (expandable) baton with holder.

The cost of that equipment, accompanying certifications and insurance, are not to exceed $13,000, according to the board.

The board has discussed arming officers at previous meetings, but this was the first mention of an “official” policy approved on first reading. A copy of the written policy was not available earlier this week for publication, and only was provided to The Express of Lock Haven and other media Thursday about three hours before the newspaper’s deadline.

In fact, there appeared to be some confusion among the board members themselves as to what policy had been presented to them because there had been several versions being examined, and the cut-and-paste on the final document apparently missed some paragraphs.

It was clear, however, that the board had been briefed on the final proposal, as they appeared well versed on all the provisions.

Earlier school board sessions had offered the public and the board with several options, and in all those meetings, public participation was lacking despite the board’s efforts to feature the upcoming vote and request citizen participation.

Coleman himself offered an overview of the policies and recommendations at the meeting, and emphasized that he, as the only certified police officer, will be the only school resource officer qualified to carry a handgun.

Remaining security staff in the district are attendance/security officers who have no arrest powers but are charged with keeping order at events and throughout the school day.

As chief school police officer, Coleman is a certified officer with arrest powers. He serves on another police department.

Coleman also emphasized that nearby school districts like Williamsport and Bellefonte already have armed officers. The only difference here, he said, is that Keystone Central, with its expansive district, opted to maintain its own law enforcement agency instead of contracting with local municipal officers for services.

Currently, the only difference between Coleman and a municipal police officer is that Coleman does not carry a gun while serving the school district.

The new policy changes that.

A policy on “use of force and weapons” also approved by the board Thursday night and outlines the situations in which those tools are allowed to be used by security personnel, although not in great detail.

In any case, the use of such weapons is authorized to save the life of the officer or any individuals under his or her protection.

Firearms, according to the new policy, may be discharged only during times when the life of the officer or the life of another is threatened, or in jeopardy of serious bodily injury or death, or during range practice and qualification, or to destroy an animal that presents a threat to safety or which is injured, or to “affect a lawful arrest for a felony or serious misdemeanor that is being committed in plain view of the officer.”

Again, the specific situations are somewhat vague, but Taser use is also limited to protect the life of the officer or others in close proximity to the incident, to subdue an aggressive individual who may or may not be armed, or as a restraining device in order to properly subdue a perpetrator.

In no section of the policy does it mention the word “student” as equivalent to a suspect, aggressive individual, or perpetrator. Coleman acknowledged that there could be circumstances where a student is the subject of those police actions, but added that in almost every circumstance, the response is gradual and usually ends with the student being “talked” out of any criminal or violent behavior.

Any discharge or a weapon, accidental or otherwise, should generate a report to the superintendent, state police, appropriate law enforcement agency or designee.

Any press release also accompanying the discharge of a weapon must come from the superintendent, the board agreed. Coleman said any investigation that leads to an arrest will generate documents and these are governed by state open records laws.

The question of school security has preoccupied schools across the country since 27 people died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., sparking a national debate about appropriate responses to gun violence, school security and related matters. Gun control legislation – specifically the expansion of background checks for gun purchases – gained momentum in Congress in recent months, but there was not enough support among House and Senate members for background checks to become new law.

In every case, according to Superintendent Kelly Hastings, only officers with proper training and clearances would be armed. In the meantime, especially in the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last year that led to the death of teachers and elementary school students, Keystone continues to have lock-down practices in all buildings and safety plans are in place and periodically reviewed.

Security updates and improvements have been made and an “immediate notification” system has been installed.