School security discussed

February 19, 2013

CANONSBURG – While they agree there is no quick fix or a single solution to improving security in Washington County schools, the Canonsburg police chief and superintendent of Canon-McMillan schools recognize the need for changes in school safety.

Police Chief R.T. Bell, president of the Washington County Chiefs of Police Association, and C-M Superintendent Michael Daniels were among the chiefs and school administrators who met last week to discuss improving safety at schools across the county. The tragedy in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut is prompting police and administrators to take a closer look at school security.

“This is an issue that is not going away,” Daniels said. “There is a clear message from groups advocating for armed officers in the schools. But the problem is the budget. And having police is not a free service.”

Bell said that school buildings must be made as secure as possible.

“Hopefully by improving security, we can delay the person who is trying to get into the school to allow police to arrive,” Bell said. “Most attacks are over in a matter of five or 10 minutes. If we get alerted immediately of a problem and delay that person from entering, that’s where lives are going to be saved.”

“With the borough only four square miles in size, we are lucky because we can get to any school in a matter of two minutes,” he added. “Other areas aren’t as lucky.”

“People are going to have to understand that they may face inconveniences trying to get inside schools instead of just walking through an open door,” Bell said.

“But it is all for the safety of the children. Visitors to schools may find themselves asked a prepared list of questions before they are allowed to enter.”

Daniels said the questions would likely ask the visitor for their name and the purpose of their visit.

“If they are there for the wrong reasons, maybe the questions will upset or frustrate them,” he said.

Eventually, visitors to Canon-McMillan schools could be buzzed into a secure area where their intentions will be questioned before they are then permitted to enter the school.

Having an open line of communication between police and the school districts is essential, Bell said.

“Last year, we had a SWAT situation on South Central Avenue in the early morning hours,” Bell said. “I knew we’d have kids trying to walk past the house and school buses coming through within a matter of a few hours. I placed a call to the superintendent, who made the notifications so we had no buses or kids going through that morning.”

Police vehicles for all three municipalities now have key fobs that can be used to enter schools during any emergency at any time of the day or night, Daniels said. School district officials will be notified of the entry.

“Not having to stop and wait to be allowed in is a benefit,” Daniels said.

Emergency responders also have access to blueprints of all the schools in the district. The information, which is password-protected, can even be accessed on a smartphone.

Bell and Daniels hope last week’s meeting is only the first. The chief said he’d like to see a brainstorming session where both groups can exchange ideas.

Kathie O. Warco has covered the police beat and transportation for the Observer-Reporter for more than 25 years. She graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in journalism.

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