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Western Pennsylvania schools take closer look at security

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Alan Johnson, the substitute superintendent of Woodland Hills School District, stands in a metal detector at the district’s high school on Friday, January 11, 2013.

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No one-size-fits-all answer, officials say

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which helps all districts in Allegheny County except Pittsburgh Public Schools with programming and administrative issues, said security measures depend on a district's makeup and community desires.

“There's not a one-size-fits-all fix,” said Hippert, who also has been superintendent of the South Fayette School District, which did not have metal detectors. “Superintendents are talking about what their communities want. Parents are coming to superintendents or board members and saying, ‘We want more security than you currently have,' but it differs with each individual community,” she said.

She said she's heard more talk about armed guards than metal detectors.

Security expert Brian Kensel, a retired FBI agent and adjunct professor at Saint Leo University in Florida, said metal detectors and armed guards are both good to have.

“Anything that helps detect to deter the presence of a weapon in school is a plus,” Kensel said.

He said stigmas about detectors persisted “up until recently because people thought those were reserved for inner-city schools where kids supposedly come from bad neighborhoods.”

“I think that is disappearing. Look at Columbine, Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook — far from any inner-city violence.

“Still, nothing I've heard has changed my basic belief that the presence of armed security at all levels is the single best way to address this.”

— Bobby Kerlik

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By Bobby Kerlik
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Standing in line to pass through a metal detector to get into school is part of the morning routine for Penn Hills senior Jordan Terry.

“I think the metal detectors are a great idea. No one can get around school with a weapon,” said Terry, 17, senior class president.

“I guess depending on the school district, people might look at (detectors) negatively, but I think it's a good idea, es-pecially with the (Newtown, Conn.) school massacre. I think every school should have security.”

Schools across Western Pennsylvania are re-examining their security procedures as a result of the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Whether metal detectors figure into security plans depends on the district.

Typically, the detectors are box-like, open structures that students walk through upon entering a building, much like detectors at airports.

The devices are monitored by outside or internal security guards, a school resource officer — a common name for a security officer at public schools, who can be a police officer — and school officials, administrators said.

They usually are located inside high schools, junior high schools and middle schools near doors. When students, who are required to walk through them, set off the beep, they must pass through after removing whatever metal set off the detector.

Some districts — such as Penn Hills, Woodland Hills, Steel Valley and Pittsburgh Public Schools — use metal detectors to screen for weapons, saying they are acting to prevent violence. Others say they have seen no need for them.

Upper St. Clair Superintendent Patrick O'Toole said his district's security reviews didn't indicate a need. But he added that all policies are under review in light of Sandy Hook.

“The district has two full-time school police officers and two full-time school security guards,” O'Toole said. “We also have a number of part-time/substitute guards, and we contract with the USC Township police for some events.

“Our police officers have historically spent most of their time at the high school. In the wake of Newtown, we have expanded our security activities at the middle and elementary schools.”

Washington Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said her district has discussed the possibility of installing metal detectors but so far has decided against it. She cited security that includes cameras, locked doors, double entrances and a full-time school resource officer.

“We believe we deal with the security issues now,” DiLorenzo said.

Steel Valley Superintendent Edward Wehrer said the presence of metal detectors in the high school and middle school shows the district, which educates students from Munhall, West Homestead and Homestead, is in the vanguard in warding off potential problems.

“I think we've been pretty proactive in safety,” Wehrer said.

Steel Valley, which has an enrollment of about 1,800 students, uses metal detectors in addition to having a school resource officer.

“We did not have to wait for Sandy Hook to realize large gatherings of people can be vulnerable,” Wehrer said. “I believe (detectors) are effective. They're good to reassure people.”

Wehrer said the district also decided to use metal detectors at indoor sporting events last winter and began using handheld metal detectors at outdoor events at the beginning of this school year.

The screening caused a buzz in the district.

“People called. ... (They) said, ‘It must be an unsafe environment, that's why,' ” Wehrer said. “No — we're just trying to be as proactive as possible.”

Superintendents in Penn Hills and Woodland Hills echo Wehrer's comments.

“I think people have moved away from that type of thinking, that there's a stigma,” said Thomas Washington of Penn Hills, which enrolls about 4,200 students. “I think it's more about safety.”

Substitute Superintendent Alan Johnson said detectors in Woodland Hills have never found a gun but have caught knives.

“When they're first installed, there may be a stigma that goes with them. But I make the comparison to (airport detectors) — at first nobody likes it,” Johnson said. “I go down to the high school and junior high at entrance time, and it's a pretty routine thing.”

Woodland Hills enrolls about 4,000 students from 12 municipalities.

Peters began employing a full-time resource officer at the high school this year, spokeswoman Shelly Belcher said. Chartiers Valley has security personnel at its three campuses and is talking with Scott and Collier to add resource officers, spokeswoman Kara Droney said.

Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer yesterday issued a letter to parents saying that the district will begin allowing Mt. Lebanon police officers to do unannounced, random walk-throughs in district buildings. Steinhauer said the district is continuing its review of its security measures.

A spokeswoman for North Hills said the superintendent declined to comment.

North Allegheny administrators did not respond to questions.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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