BURRELL TOWNSHIP — Armed school resource officers will now patrol the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District under a plan implemented Wednesday with the hiring of three retired state police troopers.
The school board voted unanimously to hire Michael Schmidt, Kirt Allmendinger and Kirk Nolan, all of whom worked at the Indiana or Greensburg state police barracks and are retired with various ranks. The officers will be paid through a $40,000 Safe Schools grant, according to Ian Magness, assistant superintendent at Blairsville-Saltsburg.
Blairsville-Saltsburg is the second school district in Indiana County to hire armed officers; Marion Center Area implemented a similar plan in 2013. Officials at Marion Center were “fantastic” in providing guidance, Magness said.
There will be at least one armed officer at each side of the school district at all times, Magness said. Officers will carry their own firearms, in addition to a Taser, pepper spray and handcuffs. They will wear uniforms and bullet-proof vests.
The officers are part-time employees, but Magness declined to provide their hourly pay rate, saying it has not been firmly established. They will not receive health benefits.
Magness said the district is advertising for more resource officers.
The $40,000 grant, to be used by the end of the 2013-14 year, is considered seed money, Magness said. It will fund the program entirely through the school year, including the outlay for uniforms and equipment.
For the grant’s second year in 2014-15, the district will receive $20,000 to fund the remainder necessary to retain the officers.
School officials are excited to provide an armed deterrent, Magness said. He declined to provide a start date, citing security concerns.
Parents will be notified by mail and are encouraged to discuss it with their children, Magness said. In addition, students will be introduced to the officers in a school setting.
The officers will go through an orientation process to learn the orientation of the schools, Magness said. They will also receive supplemental training, as well as provide safety training for the staff.
Another benefit, Magness said, is that the officers will evaluate the schools for safety vulnerabilities and fill in those gaps.
Official functions, requirements and limitations of the officers are outlined in a job description that was also approved Wednesday by the school board.
Duties include monitoring arrival and dismissal of students, periodically walking though buildings and providing security at sporting events and extracurricular activities.
They must “refrain from functioning as a school disciplinarian except in the case of violations of the law,” Magness said.
The issue of whether to provide a higher level of school security has been discussed in the district since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. The board has mulled over options that included hiring current or retired officers.
Hiring active state troopers was the most expensive option, at an annual average of $101,548.80 per officer, according to information provided by the board. Hiring someone from the sheriff’s office would cost $47,000 to $50,000 per officer, and retired state troopers would cost $23,040 to $28,800 each.
State trooper Ryan Maher, a parent in the district who frequently attended meetings to lobby for armed officers, said he was happy with the decision but expressed discontent during the public comment session at how long it took.
He pointed to comments made by board President B. Edward Smith in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook when he said Smith publicly stated money was no object when it came to school safety. He criticized the board’s recent decision to spend money on a new soccer team instead of security.
Smith replied that the options for the district at the time were too costly, and he did not foresee getting the grant that spurred Wednesday’s decision to hire the officers. Regarding the soccer program, by the time the board voted to approve it, Smith said, they were aware of the grant and intent to hire officers.