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Pa. school district arms cops with semi-automatics

Plus: Join us tonight for a discussion on why Pennsylvania has so many darn municipalities.

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This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

January 26, 2023
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Inside this edition: Why a Pa. school district decided to arm its officers with semi-automatic rifles, a free event on local governance, and how rural communities are attempting to preserve a scarce resource.

At least two school districts in Pennsylvania now allow their police officers to store and use semi-automatic rifles such as AR-15s on school premises, arguing the weapons will help keep students safe from potential shooters.

On Jan. 17, the Altoona Area School District school board updated the district’s policy to allow the firearms, following in the footsteps of the Pittston Area School District, which placed shotguns and AR-15s in its schools last fall.

“We want to be proactive with the measures we take,” said Bill Pfeffer, the director of safety and security for Altoona schools. “We’re just trying to make sure everybody’s safe in our buildings.”

Three of the school district’s 12 security personnel will be allowed to use the rifles. The force provides security across the district, which includes 11 school buildings. One officer is also a firearms instructor, according to the district.

Altoona Superintendent Charles Prijatelj told Spotlight PA that the school buildings’ long hallways necessitate that the district’s officers have access to semi-automatic rifles.

“If we have an active shooter, to send a patrolman down the hallway with a pistol is dangerous,” Prijatelj said, adding that semi-automatic rifles are more accurate when shooting long-range than handguns. 

Research suggests officers are generally inaccurate with their firearms — often because of the dynamic and stressful scenarios that active shootings pose.

Still, police and public officials tend to argue they need the weapons to match the threats they face. Semi-automatic rifles have been used in mass shootings across the country — including at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida; and Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut.

Altoona’s city police officers also have access to semi-automatic rifles, according to Matthew Plummer, the department’s public information officer. 

Prijatelj said the school district’s officers need them as well because they are the first responders. “Our [school district] police department is the first call,” he said. Altoona city police serve as “backup.”

School officials said the three school officers who are certified to use the rifles will not carry them, but that they will be “secured” with them, possibly in their cars or in safes within the school. In the case of an active shooting, those officers will have to retrieve the guns from where they are stored, Prijatelj said. 

He declined to say where the weapons will be stored, and whether the officers will be transporting the rifles between school and their homes.

Ashad Hajela, rural affairs reporter and Report for America corps member

“Pennsylvania is not as competitive in investments in higher education nationally. I am not one to point fingers because these are difficult decisions and these are historical. … I only point that out as a point of some concern, because when you think about the jobs of the future and competition, college has to be part and parcel of that.”

—Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club Luncheon on Jan. 23
» BROKEN BOROUGHS: Join us this evening at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on Pennsylvania’s local governments, and how their oversight — or lack thereof — impacts residents and governance. Register for the event here and submit your questions to

» How communities in north-central Pa. are attempting to preserve a scarce resource: darkness

» NEW INVESTIGATION: Thousands of Pa. homeowners feel stuck in a high-stakes game of telephone with their homes, vital utilities on the line

» Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro fills executive staff with loyal allies, political veterans

» Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro loosens his predecessor's notoriously strict gift ban for top officials
A foggy morning on the Juniata River near Newton Hamilton in Mifflin County, courtesy of Brian D.

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» Gaming Control Board approves license for Nittany Mall casino (

» Rural Pennsylvanians say high living costs are their biggest issue (WPSU)

» Family's search for teen ongoing (Altoona Mirror)

» Penns Valley Area School District will hire police force, implement new alarm systems (Centre Daily Times)

» Mount Nittany Medical Center submits sketch plan for upcoming expansion (

» UPMC to move many services out of Lock Haven hospital (The Express)

» Future unclear for residents affected by 'absolutely devastating' sinkhole in State College (Centre Daily Times)

» After $11K bill, will Lycoming County move on from 2020 election? (Williamsport Sun-Gazette)

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Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Jan. 26: 
Samuel Kọ́láwọlé, Penn State professor and fiction writer, offers a reading through the Mary E. Rolling Reading Series.

» Jan. 28: Award-winning songwriter Michael McGee presents the Songwriting 101 workshop in Lock Haven.

» Jan. 28: The Bellwood-Antis Public Library fundraiser Sips & Snacks in the Stacks features live music, locally made wine, and gourmet bites.

» Jan. 28: Clearfield YMCA hosts its annual Winter Festival at Parker Dam State Park.

» Jan. 29: Attend the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra's concert "Resilience" at Penn State Recital Hall.

» Jan. 29: The 10th annual Robert Burns Dinner celebrates the famous poet with Scottish food and drink.
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