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.
The school board worked out details with a solicitor, who submitted a proposal to a judge, who came into work on a Sunday to sign an emergency order. Before the first funeral began in Newtown, Butler’s head of school security began calling retired state troopers to ask two questions with major implications for the future of public education:
Did they own a personal firearm?
Would they be willing to carry it into an elementary school?
Shrinking budget, changing needs
Frank Cichra owned a gun that he was willing to carry, so he arrived early last week at a shooting range in the mountains outside Butler, hoping to qualify as an armed school policeman. He wore snow boots, a heavy jacket and earmuffs that doubled as ear protection from the cracking sound of gunfire. He slipped on gloves and cut the black fabric away from his right index finger.
“Won’t hit the target unless I can feel the trigger,” he said.
He loaded the magazine of his .40-caliber Beretta as half a dozen other men arrived at the range. Like Cichra, they all were retired Pennsylvania state troopers who had been recruited as guards.
Butler County had cut 75 teaching and administrative positions in the past five years because of a shrinking budget, but now the district of 7,500 students couldn’t hire armed guards fast enough. It had added a new insurance policy and $230,000 to the annual security budget in order to arm and employ at least 22 former state troopers — enough to station at least one guard at each school and every after-school event. In a town where hunting guns hang on the wall of the prosecutor’s office and the rifle team has won championships, the decision to arm guards had elicited a single protest. One family boycotted school for a day before returning the next.
The district’s hiring requirements for guards were at once simple and absolute: only retired state troopers with 20 years of experience who owned a gun and could pass a 60-round shooting test.
Cichra, 46, paced in the snow to keep warm and watched the first few troopers begin the test. He had been retired for exactly seven months on the day of the shooting in Newtown and that had felt like long enough. He couldn’t stand watching TV. Home improvement bored him. He had spent four years in the Army and 21 more on patrol — a career built on the hard reality of “good guys versus bad,” he said, and Newtown offered him another mission. He had three kids, ages 5, 14 and 17, attending schools near Butler.