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MASD Board Questioned on School Policing

Take Action leader calls current policies ‘dangerous’

By Adam Reinherz
The Tube City Almanac
May 10, 2024
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

(Adam Reinherz photo)

The chief executive officer of Take Action Advocacy Group is questioning the legal authority of school police officers on McKeesport Area School District campuses.

During the district’s open agenda meeting Fawn Walker-Montgomery, CEO and co-founder of Take Action, probed the MASD board about what policies determine when students are cited or arrested.

“My organization gets calls all the time in regards to complaints, with people saying that their children have been arrested here and taken to McKeesport police station,” she said during the citizen comment portion of the meeting. “Some of these kids are in fifth grade or younger. Some of them are high school age.”

“First and foremost, their role is to protect our citizens,” replied board member and safe schools committee member Dan Goughnour. “They’re here to protect students. Now do kids get arrested? Absolutely. That happens. People make mistakes. But they are first and foremost here to protect our students.”

According to Goughnour, who is also a detective at McKeesport Police Department, MASD police “essentially make all summary arrests.”

“Any one kid getting arrested is a problem for me,” Walker-Montgomery said. “We believe in abolishing police altogether. We don't want the school police here, but it's here.”

“Unfortunately, sometimes people get arrested. That's the way the real world works,” board president Mark Holtzman said. “I don't want to see anyone get arrested who shouldn’t be arrested. And I don't believe at this point that we have arrested anyone in the schools — or McKeesport police, or White Oak police, anyone — just for no reason.”

After an incident occurs, a district process determines “when a guard is involved compared to when a school police officer is involved,” Superintendent Tia Wanzo said.

MASD currently employs Police Chief Brenda Sawyer and two other officers.  Two new hires will bring the armed team to five starting next year, Wanzo said following the meeting.  

“It's school, it's not jail,” Walker-Montgomery said. “This zero-tolerance policy that the McKeesport Area School District has been operating under their last few years is dangerous. Our kids come to school to learn and it affects their development when you have people walking around with guns.”

A study published last year in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management noted that school-based policing, or reliance on student resource officers (SROs), reduces some forms of violence at school but does not prevent gun-related incidents.  

“SROs intensify the use of suspension, expulsion, police referral and arrest of students. These increases in disciplinary and police actions are consistently largest for Black students, male students and students with disabilities,” according to researchers.

“That whole law and order approach doesn't benefit anybody, but especially the Black and the brown kids,” Walker-Montgomery said. “That's why they call it the School-to-Prison Pipeline, because you're putting us in a system.”

The “pipeline,” according to the ACLU, reflects a “prioritization of incarceration over education.”

Walker-Montgomery said she understands the need to have police at sporting events, but questioned the use of funds beyond that purpose.

“There is a department in this little old school district and that money could go to some other places,” she said.

Next year’s budget includes a $2.2 million dollar line item — nearly $400,000 increase from 2023-2024 — for salaries dedicated to security officers, school police, a maintenance supervisor and assistant, maintenance, groundskeepers, custodians and summer cleaners.

The district did not specify what percent of salaries support SROs.

“You can't teach and you can't learn if you're not safe. And that's what the police and our security does. We replaced both within the last six months and we're real satisfied in the direction that we're going with that,” Holtzman said.

Wanzo said she looks forward to continuing the conversation with both Walker-Montgomery and the larger community.  

“It is important to be transparent,” she said. “It’s good for us to look at our data and processes, and to have conversations with families. We have resources and it’s important that we use them wisely and not abuse them.”

The safety of students and staff is “top priority,” Wanzo said. “But in that safety there is also responsibility for transparency with the community, and we welcome that.”

Adam Reinherz is a freelance writer. He can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.com.

Originally published May 10, 2024.

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