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Campus Safety to be armed

Jack Lewis ‘25 and Amanda Xi ‘25

On Tuesday, March 19, Mercersburg Academy announced the recent decision by the Mercersburg Academy administrative team to enhance Campus Safety by arming officers. This announcement came after months of behind-the-scenes work from many groups, including the school leadership and Pennsylvania State Police. 

“​​It's important to note that this decision was not made quickly,” shared Head of School Quentin McDowell in a recent email to the school. “The school has been discussing the prospect of enhancing Campus Safety, including adding an armed component to the Campus Safety officer team, for well over a year.” 

In fact, reflection on campus security first began in 2015 when Pennsylvania State Police visited Mercersburg Academy campus for a full assessment of campus safety. After surveying, one concern pointed out was the Academy’s open campus. Movement is not regulated on campus; students are required to check out every time they leave campus, but there are no gates, and anyone can enter and leave. In the Pennsylvania State Police assessment, another variable they measured was response time from local and state officers. Mercersburg borough has one police officer, and the assessment found that response time for state police was 15 to 20 minutes, too long for a genuine security threat. This means if an emergency were to occur on campus, campus security would be the first responders, and it is important they feel confident and prepared for the job. 

The decision was a culmination of many moments when the school believed Campus Safety may not have been as adequately prepared as possible. “[Last year,] we had a bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax, but in the debriefing audit of our response to the event, which we do for every emergency response, we could see that—even though the state police arrived quickly—our location was a factor in the timing of the police response,” said Jennifer Craig, Associate Head of School.  “School leadership, from the Board down, agreed that we needed to address this issue of coverage.” 

Campus security was also involved in the decision from the beginning; officers had brought up possible arming when, in past years, there had been thefts in town. “Nothing dangerous, but enough that we have to lock down and make a decision for the kids,” said Skip Sydnor, Director of Campus Security. 

Ultimately, the decision was made to ensure the safety of all students.“The use of force has always been, and will always be, an absolute last resort. That being said, we are not willing to risk the safety of our community, and we firmly believe this new policy will increase our ability to protect our students and employees, both in terms of our response options and through deterrence,” said McDowell. As a former state trooper with twenty-six years of experience, Sydnor agreed and said, “We are trained to not use a gun. Training is very strict in Pennsylvania. And we have brought that experience with us.”

Many campus security officers are former Pennsylvania State Troopers and have received extensive previous training with firearms. In addition, there are many policies established to secure the safety of students. Officers are required to have an Act 235 lethal weapons training certificate, along with an Act 67 School Security Personnel Training.  It is important to note that security will still abide by the use-of-force continuum, which ensures that the use of weapons is a last resort. “[This policy] demands that if any officer, even if they reach for their gun, will have to write a report, and it's going to be reviewed by administrators. It is really the last thing [they] want to do,” said Chief Financial Officer Rachelle Hargraves, who oversees risk assessment for the school. Officers will participate in ongoing training.

In response to this policy, various community members, including students and faculty, have expressed their opinions on this decision. English teacher Marc Batson notes that an emergency can occur quickly, but without properly prepared Campus Safety, there is a slow response as a result. However, with armed security, Batson says, “I live down in town, and I live right next to the security guys, which provides me a lot of comfort. I think the same degree of comfort will come onto campus, too. ” 

Student responses were varied. Malaika Mankey-Akogbeto ’27 said, “When I first heard, I was a little bit skeptical, but then after hearing more about it, I understood. It's for my safety, and I know it's not going to be used in any dangerous way. So I think it's really going to be for the best.” 

Other students had differing opinions. “I feel like Mercersburg is always saying that we want to be a community with the surrounding town, but I feel like putting the armed forces around the campus does not help us build a better community,” Claire Chow ’26 pointed out. 

Minh Anh Tran ‘25, a student from Vietnam, said, “Compared to faculty or other staff, I don’t see the campus security officers on campus as much and don’t know their side of protecting us. Coming from a country with no guns, it is going to be a massive change to get used to, but I think understanding what the officers are going to do with them would be helpful.” 

Part of the process for the decision was understanding that for many Mercersburg Academy community members, this new policy is new and may feel uncomfortable at first. Understanding different backgrounds is important for this change. “I do notice a long ugly history of police enforcement and black students. The role of campus safety is not to discipline students. That is the last thing they want to do,” said Hargraves. 

In addition to protecting students on campus, there have been questions if the newly armed officers will also take a role in patrolling town. However, Sydnor clarified, “We are not walking through towns without guns. Our number one job carrying guns is to protect the faculty, staff, and students at Mercersburg [Academy].” 

In addition, the school is also working to include students in the discussion. “We have asked Campus Safety Officers to increase their presence and engagement with adults and students over the last several months, with plans to keep this going through educational training, more frequent interactions, ride-along programs, etc,” said McDowell. “Relationship building is key to balancing physical safety with mental and emotional safety. We are certainly not the only boarding school to be implementing this policy and it is our hope that it will soon be normalized.” 

For students with more questions or wanting to discuss the new policy, there will be a forum on April 25.

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