School districts review safety policies after mass shooting in Connecticut

Districts review safety policies after Connecticut massacre

December 18, 2012
Peters Township police Officer Jim Stevick walks the hallways of Peters Township High School Tuesday during school hours. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

In the days following Friday’s tragic shooting rampage that left 26 dead in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., school administrators and teachers have been reevaluating their safety protocols.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said tragic events like those that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary inevitably cause administrators to question their assumptions.

“Obviously with past school shootings, things were learned,” Eller said. “Since then, educators and school districts across the state have taken action to prevent or curtail things from happening.”

Eller said that just as the tragedy at Columbine High school in Colorado led to improved safety regulations on school campuses across the country, school districts will now try to figure out what, if anything, could prevent something like Sandy Hook from happening again.

“I would say Pennsylvania schools have been very proactive in ensuring security,” Eller said. “But it never hurts to review plans in order to put districts in the best shape possible.”

Last week’s shooting left 20 elementary school students and six teachers and administrators dead before a lone gunman turned the gun on himself. The shooter’s mother was later found dead in her home.

The disaster has caused many to review priorities as well.

“As a result of Friday’s events, you will be holding your children a little tighter, hugging them a little longer and wanting to ensure their safety,” Joseph Dimperio, acting superintendent of Peters Township School District, wrote in a statement to parents.

Washington School District Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said the district’s policy is always evolving.

“It’s a continuous process,” DiLorenzo said.

DiLorenzo said the district recently went through a crisis and first responders drill that included students in grades 7 through 12. They were planning a similar drill for elementary students in the upcoming months.

Administrators and teachers held an emergency meeting over the weekend in order to review procedures and prepare for the upcoming week. Only one entrance at Washington Park Elementary School will be open until construction on a new entrance can be completed.

“I just think that it is really important for schools, parents and the community to work together,” DiLorenzo said. “It may be inconvenient. I know people are busy and some people may be irritated, but I would ask parents to keep in mind that these things are done to provide the highest degree of safety for our students.”

Shelly Belcher, Peters Township district spokeswoman, said staff members met Monday to review safety plans.

“We do that at the beginning of the year and we did it again,” Belcher said. “I’ve been fielding a lot of questions on what we have been doing. When it happens in a school, and we’re all parents, we’re looking to see what we can do better.”

Administrators in Greene County’s five school districts have also been in touch with each other since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Letters and automated callshave helped administrators reassure parents.

Jefferson-Morgan School District had recently completed a vulnerability risk assessment, performed by the state police.

“This is such a terrible, terrible tragedy. It is not anything we are taking for granted. There is a constant awareness and we are always making changes where we see the need,” Superintendent Donna Furnier said. She noted that janitorial and maintenance staff routinely patrol the perimeter of the buildings as part of their job duties.

A number of school districts have a “resource officer,” or armed police officer, on campus. Peters Township, Washington, McGuffey and Trinity school districts are among local school districts that have armed officers at their high school buildings.

DiLorenzo said an officer has been at the junior and senior high school building for at least six years. Administrators have recently discussed the possibility of arming officers located at the elementary building as well.

“Putting another person with a gun” in the elementary school “would be helpful in certain situations, but is not the whole answer, either,” DiLorenzo said. “The answer is for everyone highly to be highly cognizant of the situation and know what to do in a crisis.”

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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