New security measures in place for Alle-Kiski students
New security measures and procedures will greet Alle-Kiski Valley students as they begin returning to school this week.
Some they will see; others they won't.
About 38,400 students will be in Valley-area public school classrooms in the 2013-14 school year.
The first go back on Thursday in the Armstrong, Fox Chapel Area and Riverview districts.
School districts continue to unveil new security and safety measures and policies. They come in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members.
Districts are better securing building entrances, instituting screening systems that check visitor backgrounds and limiting access to schools.
They are reviewing and updating emergency response plans, training staff and conducting drills with police.
Some districts are bringing in police officers and guards — some of them armed.
Sandy Hook was different than past incidents at American schools and motivated districts to examine the security of their schools and make changes.
“It was not another high school or college. It was our youngest kids,” said Don Smith, emergency planning and response manager for the Center for Safe Schools in Camp Hill. “We're no longer just looking at the high school for security. We're looking at all building levels.”
With no mandates from the state on what security measures to take, how districts have responded is “all over the board right now,” Smith said.
“Everybody realizes that when kids feel safe, they learn better,” Smith said.
Elementary schools have been a focus of security changes, their entries and lobbies, in particular.
Highlands School District has completed waiting lobbies at Fawn and Fairmount primary centers as part of its elementary security plan. Once inside the first set of doors, visitors stay in a waiting area where their identities are checked, Principal Ian Miller said.
Highlands, Deer Lakes, Allegheny Valley and Leechburg Area are among districts that use a system that involves scanning a visitor's driver's license to determine if they are a potential danger. Highlands has used such a system, called “Raptor,” for years; other districts are just getting it, or, like Leechburg Area, expanding its use from the high school to the elementary level.
At Franklin Regional, visitors will find greeters previously in school lobbies now behind walls, said Dennis Majewski, director of district services.
Franklin Regional has installed safety film on windows at all of its schools. Majewski would not discuss that in detail, but said it strengthens the windows so they can't be broken out easily.
Some schools have reconfigured their entries so visitors must pass through the office before gaining access to the rest of the building.
Kiski Area's new Upper Elementary School, opening this fall, has that feature built-in; it was also done as part of a renovation project at Kiski Area South Primary (formerly Mamont), and at Kiski Area North Primary (formerly Allegheny-Hyde Park).
Freeport Area is making changes to plans for a new middle school that would funnel visitors through the office.
“When you think about most older school buildings, they were not built that way,” said John Tedorski, Kiski Area's director of technology services and instruction.
Leechburg Area considered a construction project to put an office in its elementary lobby, but has opted for putting buzzers on internal doors, Principal Matt Kruluts said.
Once through the first set of doors, a visitor no longer will be able to enter the school without further scrutiny.
“It's very effective, and it works,” Kruluts said.
Doors inside schools also are receiving attention. At Riverview's Verner Elementary, that meant installing doors on classrooms over the summer.
The school was built with an open classroom concept, and most classrooms had no doors, Superintendent Peggy DiNinno said.
Parents bringing left-behind lunches or books will find their access to schools limited.
Districts including Highlands and Allegheny Valley have created drop-off locations at school entries, to reduce the number of people entering buildings, Miller said.
“Our goal was to make our buildings as secure as we could,” he said.
Allegheny Valley had hosted open lunches at its elementary schools, allowing parents to eat with their children. That has come to an end, said Acmetonia Principal Greg Heavner, who heads the district's emergency management committee.
“It's unfortunate due to circumstances in school safety that some things have to change,” he said. “The majority of the parents understand the reasons for this. Safety comes first. If we see there is a potential for harm or some kind of incident happens, the parents understand we need to move on that.
“If it means taking away some things we had in the past, so be it.”
Plans and drills
It's important for school districts and emergency responders to plan and prepare together so that, if an incident does happen, there is a good outcome, Smith said.
Among the first responses districts made to Sandy Hook was to review, revise and update security plans. Districts also have reached out to police, fire and emergency medical responders to review response plans and carry out drills.
“Before Sandy Hook, school districts were looking at the internal shooter, being the Columbine situation,” said Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, referring to the 1999 Colorado incident involving two students. “Sandy Hook underscored for school districts that there's a potentially different threat.”
Exercises known as “active shooter drills” have been added to drills that schools have held for fires and weather emergencies.
An active shooter drill that state police conducted with Freeport Area in May highlighted changes that were needed in the district's safety and security plan, according to spokesman Todd O'Shell.
In the drill, teachers portrayed students, police used simulated guns that sounded like real ones, and a variety of scenarios were played out.
The district has been working with state police, and “they've been very helpful in that regard,” O'Shell said.
Lower Burrell police recently trained at Burrell High School, allowing them to get more familiar with the building.
Allegheny Valley is planning an active shooter drill for the spring, Heavner said.
At Allegheny Valley, panic buttons have been installed in all school offices, which go directly to 911. Boxes outside the schools have keys and important documents for police and firefighters.
Burrell Superintendent Shannon Wagner said police will host a special assembly with the district's faculty and staff before students return Sept. 3.
“They'll come in and fire off shots to let the faculty know what it's like to shutdown the building, if something were to go down,” she said.
Police and guards
Police and guards were in schools before Sandy Hook. Apollo-Ridge brought in a Kiski Township police officer as a “school resource officer” several months before the incident.
In December, after Sandy Hook, South Butler armed two of its security guards.
Leechburg Area could hire a school security director in September. It has not been decided whether that person, expected to be a retired police officer, will be armed, Kruluts said.
As part of the state budget, an additional $6.5 million was made available for school safety. Of that amount, 60 percent will go toward funding for new school resource and police officers, with the remaining 40 percent for equipment and training.
The state Department of Education is working on grant guidelines and applications for districts to apply. They are expected to be available this fall.
Allegheny Township is seeking a federal grant to pay for a resource officer for Kiski Area schools in the township.
Freeport Area has discussed hiring a director of safety and security, but a final decision has not been made, O'Shell said.
Smith said the Center for School Safety's position is that guns in schools should only be in the hands of trained law enforcement. Maintaining that level of training is expensive and a cost districts should consider.
Schools should only implement security measures they are sure they can sustain, he said.
Surveys and studies have found that schools are one of the safest places to be, for the students who learn there and the educators who work in them, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
“Overwhelmingly, schools are very safe places,” he said. “These added measures will add to the safety.”
Wagner said she would never expect something to happen at Burrell, but is glad they're prepared if the improbable would happen.
“We have a nice community, I chose to live here in 1999 because I liked the community,” she said. “It's a really nice place, but we don't want to be naive.
“Bad things can happen anywhere.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.