‘Threat Alert’: After Newtown Shootings, Pennsylvania County Hires Armed School Guards

Eli Saslow
Washington Post
Jan 11, 2013

BUTLER, Pa. — Four hundred miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, a superintendent named Mike Strutt left a morning meeting on Dec. 14 and decided to place his schools on “threat alert.”

He was concerned about a copycat attack on the day of the Connecticut shootings. But, as he read reports of the massacre, he started to worry more about something else.

For 20 years, he had specialized in school safety, filling three binders with security plans and lockdown drills — all of which felt suddenly inadequate. In the case of an attack, would a “threat alert” do him any good?

He looked out his office window at the snow-covered trees of western Pennsylvania and imagined a gunman approaching one of Butler County’s 14 schools, allowing the attack to unfold in his mind. In came the gunman, past the unarmed guards Strutt had hired after Columbine; past the metal detectors he had installed after Virginia Tech; past the intercom and surveillance system he had updated after Aurora.

Strutt stood from his desk and called the president of the Butler County School Board, Don ­Pringle.

“This could happen here,” Strutt said. “Armed guards are the one thing that give us a fighting chance. Don’t we want that one thing?”

That question has preoccupied schools across the country since 27 people were killed in Newtown, Conn., last month, and the emerging solutions reflect the nation’s views on gun control. In a divided America, guns are either the problem or the solution, with little consensus in between. A dozen states have proposed legislation to put armed guards in schools; five others have drafted plans to officially disallow them.

Groups in Utah are training teachers to carry guns, Tennessee is hiring armed “security specialists” for $11.50 an hour and the National Rifle Association is working on a plan to arm school volunteers even as teachers gather in protest outside the group’s headquarters.

At stake in the debate are basic questions about the future of gun control in the United States. Do guns in schools assuage fears or fuel them? Do they keep students safe or put them at risk?

Here in Butler, a shale-mining town in the woodsy hills north of Pittsburgh, Strutt and the school board decided their reaction to Newtown could allow for neither hesitation nor ambiguity. No local school had ever experienced a gun-related threat, but neither had Sandy Hook Elementary. The district had a $7 million deficit, but some priorities demanded spending.

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