Schools know security can't be fool-proof
In 1999, two students killed 15 people at Columbine High School in Colorado, immediately focusing national attention on school security.
Despite scrutiny from school officials and communities, the attacks haven't stopped.
The most recent took place on Wednesday at Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville when a student wielding two knives slashed and stabbed 21 students and a security guard. The victims survived, but six remain hospitalized.
Alle-Kiski Valley school districts have instituted security measures aimed at thwarting such incidents, including some that may have preceded the Columbine killings.
But as New Kensington-Arnold School Superintendent John Pallone observed, security measures are not guarantees, even at airports where measures have been heavy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“There are security breaches at airports,” Pallone said. “The adamant, highly motivated wrong-doer is going to find a way around them.
“Our security measures are good, but they are not foolproof.”
What local districts do
Eleven of the Valley's 14 school districts, excluding Franklin Regional, responded to Valley News Dispatch inquiries regarding security measures. The Plum, Kiski Area and Armstrong school districts did not respond.
All of those that responded use security cameras throughout their buildings.
All of them keep the doors locked after students arrive for the day and have controlled access to buildings. Visitors have to press a buzzer in view of a security camera monitored by school personnel. They are admitted after giving their reasons for the visit via an intercom.
Only two — Highlands and New Kensington-Arnold — use fixed-position metal detectors that students and visitors must pass through.
Two others, Burrell and South Butler, use portable metal-detecting wands but on a random, not daily, basis.
Using fixed metal detectors can delay students from getting into the building due to waiting lines. Examining backpacks also causes delays.
Highlands went through growing pains on both counts after installing detectors in 2009, but procedures have improved, according to Highlands spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski.
“That was, literally, just the first couple runs of it,” she said. “Now it's not bad. The teachers are on deck, and it goes very smoothly.”
Familiarity with the routine helps.
“The students expect it; the staff is used to it,” Pallone said. “Don't forget, we've been doing it for at least seven years.”
Burrell Superintendent Shannon Wagner said using the portable wands on a random basis works, “because it is a deterrent. Our kids never know when and who.”
Kathy Makuta, Deer Lakes spokeswoman, said the school board has considered metal detectors.
“After Sandy Hook, we did have someone come in and speak to us about (metal detectors), and at that time they decided not to do it,” Makuta said. “I'm sure it will be revisited.”
Employing security guards or a school resource officer — a local policeman posted at a district school — is another option to improve safety.
More security no panacea
Despite security measures, violence can occur quickly anywhere in a school.
Franklin Regional has a Murrysville police officer as its resource officer, and it also employs unarmed security guards. A security guard wrestled with the knife-wielding 16-year-old on Wednesday and was stabbed in the abdomen before a school vice principal and a student subdued the attacker.
The resource officer was not in the part of the school where the stabbings occurred but was on the scene in minutes, radioing for more police units when he realized there was trouble; he took the student into custody.
Eight of the 11 Alle-Kiski districts said they use a security guard or a resource officer — or both — as law enforcement presence, usually at the high school or middle school.
The resource officers — who are members of local police departments — are armed, and may be at the schools daily or on certain days depending on the agreement between the municipality and the school district.
Members of private security hired by a school district don't necessarily carry guns.
Frank Prazenica, acting superintendent at Leechburg Area School District, said in September the district hired a former state trooper as a school police officer/safety director. He is armed, Prazenica said.
“What we try to do is just operate as normal,” he said. “He is there when the students are dropped off. He is more visible just to make sure students know they are secure and safe.”
South Butler has three armed security officers, according to the district's Jason Davidek, who said that permission to carry a firearm in the schools had to be granted by the Butler County courts.
Todd O'Shell, spokesman for Freeport Area, said the district hired a former state trooper as director of school safety in February.
Freeport Area is seeking permission for him to carry a gun. The district has asked county judges in Butler and Armstrong counties, since the district straddles both. School board approval is then expected.
Apollo-Ridge Superintendent Matthew Curci said his district has a Kiski Township policeman stationed daily at the high school.
Kathy Makuta, spokeswoman for Deer Lakes, said a West Deer officer fills that role for the district.
Fox Chapel Area has two school resource officers, according to spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski.
“We have one resource officer from O'Hara who is stationed at the high school for the schools in O'Hara, and a police officer from Indiana Township based in Dorseyville Middle School for the schools in Indiana Township,” she said. They have been used since 2008.
Superintendents for the three districts without security guards or resource officers — Burrell, Allegheny Valley and Riverview — say they maintain a close relationship with local police departments.
All said the police are close enough to the schools to respond within a few minutes if needed.
“Our local departments are pretty vigilant about being in the area at the beginning, through the middle and at the end of the day,” said Cheryl Griffith, Allegheny Valley superintendent.
Riverview Superintendent Margaret DiNinno said her district keeps an office at the high school, complete with a computer, for the use of Oakmont and Verona police. She said they are encouraged to use it to complete paperwork and at the same time become familiar with the students.
Wagner and Pallone said local police officers regularly stop by and walk through their schools.
“It's random throughout the day, and we love that situation,” Wagner said. “The police department has been a huge resource for us.”
Officials from the 11 districts said they maintain safety plans covering every situation and procedure imaginable. They are reviewed and updated at least once a year, if not more.
Those reviews include input from the police and other emergency responders, the staff, and, in at least in one district, even parents.
But, despite the planning, school officials know they operate at a disadvantage simply because they can't foresee the future.
Referring to his district's biggest security concern, Freeport's O'Shell replied, “I think it is the same as any school district: it's the unknown. It's just like what happened the other day; you can't be sure of those things.”
Echoing Pallone's sentiment, Wagner said, “I believe wholeheartedly that if somebody wants to do something, they are going to do it.
“The thing we have to do is slow things down, to minimize it, minimize the damage until the police arrive.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can bereached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.