WILKES-BARRE — Armed security guards are coming to Wilkes University, making it the second Luzerne County institution of higher learning to add guns to the safety mix.
The move is based on recommendations made by the consulting firm Margolis Healy & Associates, a Vermont-based company specializing in college and school security hired by Wilkes in 2012 to evaluate the school’s public safety program.
University President Patrick Leahy said he brought the consulting firm in after he was chosen for the job in the summer of that year, and that the company spent about six months conducting a study before offering recommendations.
“It’s very important to note this is not in response to any incident or series of incidents, but rather sort of a culminating decision from a year-and-a-half process to assess our capabilities,” Leahy said. “We saw areas for improvement and have been implementing those improvements through the past year.”
The school’s federally mandated annual safety reports back him up. There are no reports of weapons or gun violations in 2010, 2011 or 2012.
Among the improvements already made: dedicated dispatchers for the public safety department, increasing officer visibility while patrolling the campus, enhancing the security system and the recent hiring of Public Safety Director Christopher Jagoe, who came to Wilkes with 20 years experience in campus security at the University of Maryland.
While state law would allow the arming of officers who received Act 235 training, which applies to all types of security guards, Leahy said Wilkes will provide guns only to guards who have undergone Act 120 training, which is required for municipal police officers.
Five of the university’s 16 full-time security guards already have Act 120 training , three of them having served in the Wilkes-Barre police department, and they will begin carrying weapons this summer, Leahy said. The university intends to have three additional security officers get Act 120 training so they can be armed in the summer of 2015.
The plan is to maintain a “hybrid” force of armed and unarmed security, Leahy said, adding that only sidearms will be issued.
Wilkes is the second Luzerne County institution of higher education to arm it’s security guards. Luzerne County Community College began arming some of it’s officers last year, LCCC Security Director Bill Barrett said.
“It involved a lot of policy changes and job description changes done in consultation with the unions,” Barrett said, noting the LCCC trustees approved the idea in 2012 after research and discussion. “Everyone was on board by the end of 2012.”
LCCC does not require armed officers to get Act 120 training, but does require several years experience and Act 235 training, which Barrett said typically runs about two weeks with some time on a firing range.
Act 120, in contrast, is about 700 hours of training in a wide range of public safety issues, Leahy said, including observing suspicious behavior, diffusing tense situations and how to manage security across a larger physical area.
While “Act 120 training is much more stringent than act 235,” Barrett said, candidates for either must pass multiple clearances. “They have to pass a full psychological screening by an approved doctor, a full physical and a full FBI fingerprint background check before they can even take the course.”
Barrett said he believes seven of LCCC’s 12 security guards carry guns, though they operate only on the main campus in Nanticoke. Security at outlying campuses is provided through a contracted service that provides armed guards.
King’s College spokesman John McAndrew said arming guards has been discussed at that school but no decision has been made. Misericordia University spokesman Jim Roberts said it has also been discussed there and the decision was to keep the security force unarmed.
Leahy said that, during his eight years working at the University of Scranton before coming to Wilkes, that school decided to create a complete, private police force, which means all school officers have the authority to arrest and detain.
Wilkes opted not to go that far, Leahy said, and will continue working with Wilkes-Barre police as needed. The city’s police chief and Mayor Tom Leighton support the decision to arm some university guards he added.
“I consider this a very positive step for Wilkes University as an institution, and for the city of Wilkes-Barre as a municipal center,” Leahy said.