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Western Pa. school districts ramping up security, technology

September 18, 2018
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School Police Officer Greg Keefer addresses Southmoreland School District teachers during a meeting about school safety procedures on August 23, 2018 at the Southmoreland Elementary/Middle School in Scottdale.

What happens if a shooter opens fire during outdoor recess? How do I assist an injured child? Do the district’s oldest buildings have the hardware -- doors that lock, windows that aren’t accessible -- to keep us safe?

These are just a few of the questions teachers gathered for a back-to-school safety meeting at Southmoreland School District in Westmoreland County asked Officer Greg Keefer, a school police officer who manages district security, ahead of the first day of school Monday.

Southmoreland is one of many area districts instituting expanded safety-related policies this year. Schools across Southwestern Pennsylvania faced at least 50 threats in the six weeks following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., when 17 people were killed, according to Tribune-Review reports. That incident ignited a nationwide debate over school safety and gun violence, carried out locally by students who led walkouts, marches and letter-writing campaigns to elected officials.

The Southmoreland community rallied around the issue of school safety last spring, raising more than $42,000 from its Pasta for Protection dinner. The money was used this summer to purchase a visitor check-in system called Raptor, which is used by several area districts, as well as new radios and a security camera system, Keefer said.

The rural district, which serves about 1,900 students, has hired two additional part-time school police officers to patrol the district’s four buildings and school events.

“Not only are we having additional officers at our football games, but we’ll also have a regulation or rule: no backpacks allowed,” Keefer said.

The district’s first home football game took place Friday against Mt. Pleasant Area High School, where the new rule was to be communicated to families by the district’s athletic director, Keefer said.

Handheld metal detectors will also be in use at all school events.

“It is our hope through the grants that we can actually purchase the full-sized metal detectors,” Keefer said, referencing the Safe Schools Targeted Grants administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education Office of Safe Schools. Schools can apply for grants to fund the purchase of hardware, administering safety-related programs or hiring school police or resource officers.

“I’m looking forward to doing another pasta dinner later in the year,” said school board member Jim Carson, who helped to coordinate the April event. “The money is greatly needed.”

Lawmakers took steps towards addressing the need for more school safety funding in June, approving $60 million for the School Safety and Security Grant Program, administered through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and separate from grants distributed by the Department of Education.

The legislation that created that funding source includes new school safety training guidelines for school staff; mandates the appointment of district-level safety and security coordinators; creates standards for school police, resource officers and security guards; and establishes a threat reporting program to be managed by the state attorney general’s office. All of the guidelines established by the law, included in Act 44, are scheduled to be in place by the end of the 2018-19 school year.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state laws across the country, 71 school safety-related bills or resolutions across 32 states have been enacted since Feb. 14. Of those bills, 28 appropriated funding for school security, while 20 focused on the role of law enforcement and 16 address school building infrastructure.

School security experts like Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based school security consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, are urging school officials and lawmakers to proceed with caution. He said that he’s seen schools around the country investing in security products that might not actually make students and staff safer.

“The first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body where the people side of school safety takes the lead over hardware and products,” Trump said in an email. “Any security technology and hardware is only as effective as the weakest human link behind these physical security measures.”

The National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides training and support for school resource officers across the country, has seen an uptick in the number of school resource officers attending their training sessions, Director of Operations Mac Hardy said.

Training sessions he’s observed have included a mix of officers who are new to the job and who have worked as school resource officers in schools for two to five years. Officers are taught to function both as law enforcement as well as counselors, mentors and classroom instructors.

It’s against this backdrop that other area districts are ramping up security staff and technology.

Mt. Pleasant Area School District also expanded its school police force, adding a part-time officer, Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said. The rural district, which serves about 2,000 students, already had two full-time officers and a part-time officer.

The district is in the process of installing new interior doors and door locks and continuing to upgrade surveillance cameras.

Hempfield Area, the county’s largest district with about 5,600 students, has hired additional school police officers to be stationed at each of the district’s three middle schools, Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said. The officers will be paid $25 per hour. The district has applied for a $40,000 grant from the state Department of Education to cover their salaries, Wolicki said.

In addition, the district submitted a grant application for a repeater to support portable radios, increased the number of security cameras and improved capabilities for storing footage.

Norwin School District has initiated the process for hiring a school police officer, which would cost the district about $60,000 for salary, benefits, equipment and supplies, district Jon Szish said.

At the request of students, who voiced concerns about preparedness after an intruder alarm was accidentally triggered at the high school in April, the district has been working to include students “more closely” in emergency lockdown drills, Szish said. This includes providing step-by-step instructions explaining each phase of the drill and adding posters explaining safety procedures to classrooms.

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