Why a Pa. school district decided to arm its officers with semi-automatic rifles

Ashad Hajela of Spotlight PA State College

This story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

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ALTOONA — At least two school districts in Pennsylvania now allow their police officers to store and use semi-automatic rifles such as AR-15s on school premises, arguing the weapons will help keep students safe from potential shooters.

On Jan. 17, the Altoona Area School District school board updated the district’s policy to allow the 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 measures we take,” said Bill Pfeffer, the director of safety and security for Altoona schools. “We’re just trying to make sure everybody’s safe in our buildings.”

Three of the school district’s 12 security personnel will be allowed to use the rifles. The force provides security across the district, which includes 11 school buildings. One officer is also a firearms instructor, according to the district.

Altoona Superintendent Charles Prijatelj told Spotlight PA that the school buildings’ long hallways necessitate that the district’s officers have access to semi-automatic rifles.

“If we have an active shooter, to send a patrolman down the hallway with a pistol is dangerous,” Prijatelj said, adding that semi-automatic rifles are more accurate when shooting long-range than handguns.

But some research suggests officers are generally inaccurate with their firearms — often because of the dynamic and stressful scenarios that active shootings pose.

Still, police and public officials tend to argue they need the weapons to match 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 school in the Altoona district. “With all the school shootings, the only way to stop them is by arming the people who can stop them.”

Altoona’s city police also have access to semi-automatic rifles, according to Matthew Plummer, the department’s public information officer.

Prijatelj said the school district’s officers need them as well because they are the first responders. “Our [school district] police department is the first call,” he said. Altoona city police serve as “backup.”

School officials said the three school officers who are certified to use the rifles will not carry them. But the guns will be “secured” with the officers, the officials said, possibly in their cars or in safes within the school. In the case of an active shooting, those officers would have to retrieve the guns from where they are stored, Prijatelj said.

He declined to say where the weapons will be stored, and whether the officers will transport the rifles between school and their homes.

Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an organization that advocates to stop gun violence, said that while he understands that district officials are trying to “put the lives of students first,” the decision “does nothing to make students safer.”

He pointed to the failure of the heavily armed police to respond quickly enough to the shooting in Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were killed.

He said a better approach is to keep weapons from the people who would commit these crimes.

Ashad Hajela is a Report for America corps member and writes about rural affairs for Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.

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