KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — Amid ongoing debate about who can carry guns in Pennsylvania schools, some school administrators have been quietly armed for nearly a year, a Keystone Crossroads investigation has found.
According to a lawyer whose firm represents about 50 Pa. school districts, a handful of superintendents have gained permission from county law enforcement officials to carry concealed firearms in their schools without the public’s knowledge.
Attorney Ronald Repak, of the Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference earlier this year, in which he said that his firm had petitioned district attorneys on behalf of administrators who wished to carry firearms in their official capacity.
Based on ambiguity in state statute, district attorneys in different counties arrive at different interpretations of the law.
Repak recently confirmed that fewer than six of those petitions were successful, and that administrators in those districts now carry guns. He would not disclose details about which districts or staffers.
There could be other armed staff at districts represented by different firms.
“I will tell you, you probably don’t know who these individuals are, but they are carrying concealed weapons within the school districts because of our petition,” Repak said.
The news came as a shock to some education advocates.
“I haven’t heard one thing at all about anyone carrying guns,” said Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools.
Ambiguity over guns in schools
Who can carry a firearm in schools and under what circumstances remains murky in Pennsylvania — and up for debate. Last week, Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill that extends the right to carry guns in schools to private security guards.
The governor said the bill, SB 621, also cleared up ambiguity about whether teachers can be armed.
“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel,” he said in a statement.
But despite a similar statement from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, both supporters and opponents of arming teachers say they believe the law remains open to interpretation. Nicholas Boyle, a school board member in Tamaqua, Pa. the first district in the state to pass a policy that would let teachers carry guns in the classroom, told the Allentown Morning Call that he sees no reason for the district to drop that policy based on the new law.
“The governor is acting like they took all ambiguity out of it and I have no idea where he’s getting that,” Boyle said.
Nonetheless, Tamaqua school board’s security committee voted Tuesday night to rescind the policy to ensure that it’s in line with the new law. The full board would still need to approve.
School board president Larry Wittig told the Times News Lehighton that, at some point, the board would work “on something that will comply with the law as it’s presently written.”
“I just want to stress that the law does not, contrary to what the governor may have said, does not specifically preclude a staff member from going through the training and carrying,” said Wittig.
Meg Snead, Governor Wolf’s secretary of policy and planning, disputes that reading. “The law is silent on who cannot carry a firearm, but is very specific on who can carry a firearm, and we think that’s what removes the ambiguity,” she said.
State Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland, who co-sponsored the bill, agrees that arming teachers under this bill would be an overreach. “I think it would take a really liberal and broad interpretation, and I think it would not withstand the scrutiny of the courts,” he said.
SB 621 lays out training and guidelines for schools to hire three types of armed personnel: school police officers, school resource officers, and now, school security guards — independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement.
An earlier draft of the bill included a clause that would have prevented security guards from participating in other programs with students, but it was stripped.
Opponents, including the Education Law Center and CeaseFirePA, say the final version gives districts the leeway to designate teachers or other staff as “security guards.”
Regan says the clause was removed because security guards need to interact with students in order to gather the necessary information to do their jobs. Wolf’s office says the law is clear. “Teachers and school administrators are not ‘school security personnel’ and are not authorized to be armed,” said a spokesperson by email.
Another clause removed before the bill’s passage had stated explicitly that this law is the sole means by which schools may designate personnel to carry firearms. Wolf’s office and legislators could not agree on the language, so it was stripped entirely.
And there’s another source of ambiguity. Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code states that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”
In 2016, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.” Tamaqua’s school board had pointed to the statute to argue for the legality of arming teachers.
And last year, when Beard Legal Group reached out to Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty about a local superintendent who wished to carry a gun, “lawful purpose” came into question again. Dougherty wrote a letter stating that by his reading, that administrator would not be running afoul of the law.
“I am of the opinion that if your school board of directors takes the appropriate steps to consider you a part of the security team, and you comply with all directives and required training by the school board, the Commonwealth will not prosecute you,” he wrote.
The letter also seemed to imply that the administrator was already carrying a gun in the school.
“To date, this administrator does in fact carry a concealed weapon on district property,” it continued.
Dougherty wrote the letter in June 2018 in reference to Marion Center Area School District, a small district northeast of Pittsburgh.
Reached by phone, Marion Center Superintendent Clint Weimer would not confirm or deny whether he or any other administrators are armed.
“That’s executive session, and it’s not subject to Right-to-Know,” he said. “Just for security purposes of the district.”
Weimer was referring to Act 44 of the Public School Code, which states that every year, safety and security coordinators must report to their school board about current security protocol. Those reports are supposed to be presented in executive session, out of public view, and are not subject to Right-to-Know requests.
Regan says that interpretation is correct — and vital. Until Act 44, he said, “Schools were having to sunshine their meetings about how they were going to secure their schools in front of a would-be assailant,” a security breach. But, he continued, “there’s nothing in there that would advocate for or be in favor of administrators arming themselves arbitrarily.”
“If you’re asking the district attorney if he will prosecute, it’s obviously an admission that you’re breaking the law or there’s some ambiguity,” he said.
When reached by Keystone Crossroads, DA Dougherty argued school boards still need to go through a public process to arm school administrators.
“In my opinion, it should be done out in the light of day, so citizens know, ‘Here’s what’s going on in our schools’,” said Dougherty. “What I would want to see is the minutes from that board authorizing whatever employee it is.”
In the case of Marion Center Area School District, those minutes are not readily available. The link on the district’s website where they are supposed to be posted is broken. According to school board meeting agendas, the board was scheduled to vote in August 2018 to designate Superintendent Weimer as “the supervisor of all security staff and act as the District’s Safety and Security Coordinator.”
But the motion does not mention firearms, nor does it recognize Weimer as a school resource officer, school police officer, or private security guard, the recognized categories who may carry guns.
Weimer would not comment on whether the public has an interest in knowing whether administrators are armed.
“I cannot speak to that,” he said.
Regan believes his recent bill makes clear that this arrangement is illegal.
“Maybe that’s something for the attorney general to examine,” he said.
‘What else aren’t we being told?’
Politicians and education advocates weren’t just surprised to learn that some administrators are carrying firearms. They also wanted to know: why superintendents?
“To me, even if a super were to carry a gun, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. I was a superintendent for seven years. If I’m in the elementary school and there’s a shootout at the high school, what am I really going to do?” said Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools.
The organization represents 150 of the state’s 500 school districts, including Marion Center.
Albert also said he believes schools need to do this through a public process, or risk undermining public trust.
“Let’s just say there’s a guy that goes into a school and starting shooting somebody. The superintendent shows up, shoots the guy and kills the guy, and saves a hundred lives. I think people are going to be happy but they’re going to say, ‘We didn’t know he had a gun. Why weren’t we told that? If we weren’t told that, what else aren’t we being told?'” said Albert.
“I think those people who don’t trust school districts to begin with would say, ‘There’s another reason not to trust them, they’re not transparent.'”
Repak, whose law firm petitioned district attorneys on behalf of superintendents, said disclosing that information could put staff at risk. He would not name other school districts where superintendents are armed, citing safety concerns.
“I don’t think this is transparency versus accountability. I think safety, security is what we’re looking at,” he said.
One rationale for arming school staff without telling the public is that it creates uncertainty, which could act as a deterrent: If a potential perpetrator does not know if they will face armed opposition, proponents say they will be less likely to carry out an attack.
But a survey of recent school shootings casts doubt on the efficacy of armed personnel. Four schools involved in high-profile attacks in 2018 — including in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen. Nonetheless, earlier this year, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, convened to study the Parkland shooting, concluded that arming teachers or other school staff could protect against a future school shooting.
Repak says Beard Legal Group also writes petitions for schools who wish to hire armed security or police officers, and that those requests far outnumber requests to arm administrators or other staff. He has received no requests regarding administrators since March of this year.
Edward would like to see the legislature solidify its stance on arming school staff, once and for all. When informed about armed superintendents in Pennsylvania, Regan agreed there could be room for further clarification.
“That could always be another bill,” he said.
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.