Area districts take different approaches to tighten school security

Districts take different approaches to school security

January 26, 2013
Washington police Officer Todd Foreman, a Washington High School resource officer, walks the hallways at Wash High Friday as part of his duties. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

In the wake of one of the most horrific school shootings in modern history, districts nationwide are taking a hard look at their security practices and policies.

Across Washington County, some districts are hiring armed school resource officers while others are busy tweaking their security systems and polices. As local school boards, administrators and parents may offer different opinions on how best to protect children, several area education officials have stressed that school communities needs to measure their responses and work together to provide secure, caring environments, not just dystopian lockdowns.

“We certainty have been aggressive in making sure our kids are safe and that we will offer – at the end of the day – a public school where the kids feel safe and secure, but that’s not like a prison where we’ve taken away their individual rights,” said Dr. Brad Ferko, superintendent of Charleroi Area School District.

Charleroi currently has a school resource officer and the board is considering increasing the district’s certified armed presence in the future, a decision that Ferko said is not being taken lightly. For now, the district will change the location of the greeting desk and require those entering the building to show photo identification. Ferko praised the board and the community for coming together to discuss their concerns instead of hastily reacting.

Charles Baker, superintendent of Bentworth School District, shared a similar sentiment, saying that, “We do care about the safety of children, but we need to temper what we do to not be too overzealous and frighten them in their own school setting.”

While Bentworth isn’t planning on bringing in an armed guard, Baker said administrators are working with county emergency management officials to review current safety plans and develop a laundry list of activities, including a drill involving local first responders slated for March.

Nearby, Ringgold School Board authorized its administrators earlier this month to advertise for a security chief to build its police department – a move that aligns the districts like McGuffey and Peters Township, which already have police officers present in the schools. The year before, the district had replaced an armed police officer at the high school with an unarmed security director.

At the opposite end of the county, Burgettstown Area School District also plans to create its own police department and has offered full-time positions to two retired police officers that will be stationed in both buildings.

Burgettstown Superintendent Deborah Jackson said the school’s future officers will be encouraged to work with neighboring police departments, such as Smith Township, which the district already has built a good relationship with.

At Washington Area School District, which already has a well-trained school resource officer, administrators have been trying to determine how to tackle infrastructure issues – namely its schools’ many points of entry.

“The problem that’s surfaced for us in both buildings is doors, “ said Dr. Roberta DiLorenzo, superintendent at Washington.

Washington currently utilizes an electronic card system that documents when people enter and exit the building, but a door that is left propped open can scuttle such efforts. DiLorenzo said this makes it important for the school community to follow the district’s polices.

“Security is a shared responsibly and it’s not convenient,” she said.

To remedy the issue at its elementary building, which currently has three main points of entry stretched across the long structure, the district is working to create a central entrance. DiLorenzo said the work should be complete by mid-February.

The district also recently relocated its school resource officer. Washington police Patrolman Todd Foreman was moved from the elementary school to the high school after the 7th and 8th grade classes shifted buildings, leaving the board to debate whether additional personnel are needed. DiLorenzo explained that Foreman handles not only the physical aspect of security, but also is instrumental in carrying out embedded instruction and individualized training with the faculty and staff.

“If you’re going to put someone in the building, you’ve got to put somebody with in-depth knowledge of security – particularly school security,” DiLorenzo said.

To the north, Canon-McMillan School District brought in an outside agency to conduct a structural security evaluation and administrators plan to revamp their visitation polices. Guests will now be required to show a photo ID if they want to proceed beyond the central office or pick up a child if they are not recognized, said Scott Chambers, Canon-Mac’s newly appointed assistant superintendent and former Cecil Intermediate School principal, who coordinates security for the district.

“The initial barrier is all that exists from keeping someone on the outside from coming in and its important to create those additional barriers,” he said.

Following a recent meeting with three local departments, Chambers said Canonsburg Borough as well as Cecil and North Strabane townships offered to increased police presences at the schools at no cost to the district. The officers will not be stationed in the schools, but rather conduct walk-throughs during the day. Chambers said local police have been visiting in the schools for at least a decade.

Trinity Area School District is undergoing a similar assessment process as the one seen at Canon-Mac. Dr. Paul Kasunich, superintendent at Trinity, said a member of the Washington County SWAT team and a school resource officer from another district are reviewing the findings of two recently completed independent security audits.

“I think there are some common sense things we can do,” Kasunich said. “We’re always looking at ways to enhance safety without making it a prison.”

He said the district already has more than 170 cameras throughout its schools and uses a buzzer and intercom system at its entrances. Trinity previously had a school resource officer, but eliminated the position about a year and a half ago.

Kasunich said the board is waiting for the professionals’ recommendations before making any security changes. He pointed out that schools are overwhelming safe, but when events like the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary occur, it can be emotionally shattering.

While such discussions may be tense nationwide, Washington’s DiLorenzo said that districts considering arming teachers and staff need to take a moment to understand that hunting or sport shooting experience cannot be aligned as the same preparedness required for handling security issues in a school environment.

“Arming additional people in the school who don’t have that depth of knowledge or training is a significant risk to everyone,” she said.

In the Mon Valley, some board members of California Area School District see things a bit differently and are discussing what it would take to arm teachers and staff members.

California Superintendent Brian Jackson said the board will need to consider what the impact would be on the district’s insurance, what the legal ramifications are and what kind of training would be required and at what cost. He explained that while it may not be an avenue the district pursues, it is a subject worth studying.

The district currently is utilizing a California Borough policeman as a school resource officer, which Jackson said has worked well so far. He said having a trained officer allows information to be communicated quickly to other police if an incident does occur.

Dr. James Longo, chairman of the education department at Washington & Jefferson College, said adding guards and guns to school can bring a sense security, but it can never replace the safety that comes with a community that cares for all of its citizens.

“If you need security guards – OK – but let’s not let common sense be the causality,” he said.

A former member of the National Rifle Association, Longo acknowledged there is a time and a place for guns, but he doesn’t think arming educators is the answer. Conversely, a spokesman for the gun-advocacy organization called for armed guards to be placed in all schools during a press conference last month.

“We can live in a fortress society,” said Longo, who has worked in tough schools in inner city Boston and Brazil. “Is that the kind of society we want?”

Bentworth’s Baker also touched on this point, saying, “There are advocates for armed guards and metal detectors, but is that the environment you want to provide for your small, rural school setting?”

Longo explained that while research shows schools are one of the safest places children can be during their lifetime, violence has always been in the education system since the days of one-room school houses. This often comes in the form of bullying, which is not limited to students, but also happens among teachers, staff, administrators and parents.

One of many districts seeking to address this issue is Fort Cherry, which recently established a bullying committee in addition to its security committee. Dr. Bob Dinnen, superintendent at Fort Cherry, said the committee is exploring additional ways to bring more civility and positive interactions for students into the schools.

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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