Plan to put Tasers in Uniontown schools gets mixed reviews
By Chris Foreman
Friday, August 8, 2008
The president of a school safety consulting firm said districts like Uniontown Area, which is considering arming its police officers with Tasers, have to take a conservative approach to their deployment and develop a comprehensive policy.
But an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said it's hard for him even to see a need for Tasers in a school setting.
Uniontown school officials intend to draft a Taser policy for their school police officers that might be discussed as soon as the school board's Aug. 18 meeting and could be considered for adoption next month.
The school's director of security says giving the district's three officers the option of using a Taser is more about providing the safest possible conditions for children, staff and visitors than as a weapon "directed at the students."
Concerned parents and residents questioned the necessity of the devices at a public meeting Wednesday night, but a Cleveland consultant said in an interview Thursday that a Taser can be a "useful extra tool" for authorities as an alternative to a firearm in gaining control in a tense situation.
Ken Trump, a former school security director who heads National School Safety and Security Services, said a device like a Taser -- which delivers a powerful electric shock to incapacitate a person -- potentially can be helpful if an adult non-student intruder threatens harm to himself or others.
"I think parents need to realize they're not zapping kids for not having a hall pass," Trump said.
Although he acknowledged some cases nationally in which officers allegedly have shown poor judgment in using Tasers, Trump said school officials need to be prepared to answer some questions from the public and have a dialogue about how the devices should be used in a school setting.
"The key is conservative use," he said. "I think we can say, if we can break up a fight in the hallway in a traditional way, then what's the point (of a Taser)?"
But Witold "Vic" Walczak of the ACLU in Pittsburgh thinks Uniontown -- or any other district considering Tasers -- is asking for trouble that could lead to calls of excessive force.
Unless a school has a lot of issues with officers using deadly force, Walczak said he considers Tasers "completely inappropriate."
"The problem we see around the country is police use Tasers when less force would be appropriate," he said.
The anecdotal evidence of Walczak's argument has been striking in recent years as news media have publicized claims stemming from alleged excessive force by using Tasers. Many cases involve teenagers.
Last month, a 17-year-old Winnipeg boy wielding a knife became the youngest Canadian to die after being zapped by a Taser. His family is considering a lawsuit against authorities.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in the Charlotte area announced last month that a police officer wouldn't face criminal charges in the March death of a 17-year-old grocery store worker, who was shocked with a Taser after throwing items at a store manager and advancing toward the officer.
However, medical studies have shown that exposure to a conducted-energy device, or CED, like a Taser, is safe in the "vast majority of cases," according to a June report by the National Institute of Justice.
Still, the report noted that more data might be needed to determine the effects of CED exposure on small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly and pregnant women.
Forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht, a former Allegheny County coroner, said he's not aware of any argument that children would be more susceptible to death from a Taser strike than adults.
He said that a Taser has advantages to authorities as an alternative means of restraint in intense situations.
"Once you have the Taser and it's been accepted and legitimized ... I see nothing wrong with officers being able to use it on teenagers," Wecht said.
Uniontown's director of security, Don Homer, said he's trying to be proactive by suggesting the use of Tasers. Currently, he's the only officer at the school who carries a gun, but he hasn't had to discharge it while on duty.
The 30-year law enforcement veteran has been certified to use a Taser for eight years.
"Probably the majority of my concern is protecting staff and students from something that could happen from outside the school," Homer said. "You want to be prepared. If you're not, it's too late."
A Southmoreland school director said he doesn't foresee his board following Uniontown's lead, but he thinks it could be useful for an officer.
"I think if the guy's trained and qualified it's definitely a plus," said Ken Alt, who worked in the state prison system. "You never know anymore. Common sense is the biggest thing."