McKeesport Area: School Police Arrest Guidelines Questioned

In this file photo, buses wait to be dismissed at McKeesport Area High School.

By Michael Richter

(email protected)

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, CEO of Take Action Advocacy Group, asked the McKeesport school board Thursday about the legal authority of school police officers on district property.

Walker-Montgomery said her organization “constantly” receives complaints from parents about arrests by school police.

“Some of these kids are in fifth grade or younger, some are high school age,” Walker-Montgomery said.

Walker-Montgomery asked about police policies and how they determine when arrests are made.

Principal Dan Goughnour, who is also a McKeesport police detective, said school police are making summary arrests and fewer cases. For misdemeanors and higher crimes, the district will call in police from McKeesport or White Oak, depending on the school.

“First and foremost, their job is to protect our students and staff,” Goughnour said. “They are not here to arrest children. Are children arrested? Absolutely, it happens. People make mistakes. But they are here first and foremost to protect our students and staff.”

Goughnour added that children aren’t arrested every day, despite “what some people in the community think.”

“From our perspective, every child that gets arrested is a problem,” Walker-Montgomery said. “We believe in the complete abolition of the police. We don’t want the school police here, but they are there.”

“Unfortunately, sometimes people get arrested,” said Board Chairman Mark Holtzman, a former McKeesport police officer. “That’s how the real world works. I don’t want to see anyone arrested who shouldn’t be arrested. And I don’t think at this point we’ve arrested anyone in the schools or with the McKeesport police or White Oak (police) just for no reason.”

Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo said the district decides when to bring in school police or guards if an incident occurs.

“We will do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of these children,” Walker-Montgomery said. “But the calls I’m getting are worrying. And this comes from black parents, white parents, green parents – and they say their children are afraid to come to school.

“No, I don’t excuse the children’s behavior, but they are children, they are children. If we were arrested for things we did as children, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. But we didn’t have school police.”

Wanzo invited Walker-Montgomery to discuss the matter further with county Police Chief Brenda Sawyer, who was not present Thursday.