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Mon-Yough area schools reassess their security procedures

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 7:59 a.m.

Schools in the Mon-Yough area are taking stock of security measures and answering concerns from parents in the wake of Friday's Connecticut school massacre.

“The Newtown, Conn., tragedy is yet another senseless and horrific crime that strikes at the heart of America and the world,” Norwin superintendent William Kerr wrote to parents. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the parents and families and school community as they experience shock and disbelief of the 27 lives lost.”

“We are also very sad about the teachers, psychologist and principal who were lost in this tragedy,” Propel superintendent Carol Wooten said. “The stories about the courage of the adults in this school make us all proud.”

“Our love and support go out to all of the families suffering the loss of lives and innocence,” McKeesport Area superintendent Timothy M. Gabauer wrote to families.

“That school was state of the art,” Serra Catholic High School president Diane DiNardi said of Sandy Hook Elementary. She said it is proof something could happen “no matter how much security you have.”

Locally that security includes locked-down buildings in all area districts, as well as metal detectors in many buildings. Duquesne Education Center has metal detectors both at the Third Street entrance and at the entrance to its auditorium on the Second Street side.

“We have metal detectors and we have found it to be more effective to use wands for elementary students,” Duquesne spokeswoman Sarah McCluan said. “We also check their book bags every morning as they enter the building.”

Cameras are at many locations. And heightened concern, both in terms of security and reassuring parents and children.

“Our children will probably have questions and concerns,” Wooten said, urging “the Propel community (to) please assure them that they are cared about deeply by everyone in their school, and that we work very hard to create and maintain safe schools.”

Propel locally has schools in McKeesport, Homestead, Munhall, Braddock Hills and Turtle Creek.

“We have staff counselors and school psychologists available as well as access to outside resources if needed,” South Allegheny spokeswoman Laura Thomson said. There were similar responses from most Mon-Yough educators contacted for this story.

“I think everyone at this time is a little more aware and vigilant about their surroundings,” said West Mifflin Area superintendent Daniel Castagna, who received calls from parents on Monday with concerns about school safety. “We let parents know we share in those feelings (of concern).”

Thomson said South Allegheny high school, middle school, and Early Childhood Center secretaries did not receive any phone calls about security concerns.

“The secretaries at the elementary school reported that they received about a dozen calls since Monday,” she said. “Parents wanted to be reassured that security measures such as the buzz-in system were in place.”

“We haven't had any calls because we keep them advised at all times,” East Allegheny superintendent Roger A. D'Emidio said.

“A vast majority of our staff are parents as well as educators and understand the daily need to provide safety and security to our children,” McKeesport's Gabauer wrote.

“I visited the (West Jefferson Hills) schools (Monday) and want to reassure you that providing a safe, caring and nurturing environment is of paramount importance to my team,” WJH acting assistant superintendent Hamsini Rajgopal wrote to parents.

“We have been working with the local police to have increased patrols and walkthroughs in our schools,” Elizabeth Forward superintendent Bart Rocco said. “We do have security guards at the middle school and high school after school dismisses students for the day.”

“I feel there will be continuous discussions about safety due to this tragedy, not just in our district,” Clairton City spokeswoman Alexis Trubiani said.

“We have a crisis plan that we are currently reviewing,” Duquesne's McCluan said.

“We are taking steps to review and increase any security measures where needed,” D'Emidio said. “We are in the process of increasing our security by adding security guards at the Green Valley (Primary) and Logan Middle schools.”

Since last week's incident, Steel Valley School District is stationing a security guard at Franklin Primary Center and Park Elementary School.

Steel Valley superintendent Ed Wehrer said security guards already have been at Barrett Elementary and the district middle/high school.

“We're not making knee-jerk reactions,” Wehrer said. “We're going to do the best job possible in protecting our students, staff and visitors.”

Steel Valley contracts through Victory Security for services. A Munhall police officer is utilized as a district-wide school resource officer, though he spends most of his time at the high school.

Other districts bolster security by using arrangements with local police, such as East Allegheny does with North Versailles Township.

“We have an extraordinary safety and security manual in our schools,” said Ronald Bowes, Pittsburgh Catholic Diocesan assistant superintendent for public policy and development, and a member of the board of directors at Serra Catholic High School.

“I think we have a fairly secure facility,” DiNardi said. “I think being mindful of our situation and what is going on in the building is what is important.”

Other area parochial schools include Mon-Yough Catholic in White Oak, St. Therese in Munhall, St. Agnes in West Mifflin, East Catholic in Forest Hills and, in the Diocese of Greensburg, Queen of Angels in North Huntingdon Township.

This week, the Pittsburgh diocese forwarded “a reminder to be vigilant and to go through once again the safety and security checklist.”

The diocese also forwarded to its schools, as the Pennsylvania Department of Education relayed to other public, nonpublic and private schools, advice given by the Pennsylvania State Police.

The topic was “responding to an active shooter” and protecting the 1.8 million youngsters enrolled in those schools.

“Most educational facilities are not fortified structures with multiple layers of security and fall into the ‘soft target' category,” according to the memo from the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “‘Soft targets' are historically appealing to active shooters since they are largely unprotected facilities or areas that are easily accessible to the public.”

“We have emergency management plans in place for all our buildings, and we make certain that we follow these plans,” South Allegheny superintendent Wayne P. Gdovic wrote to parents and guardians.

“We share a memorandum of understanding with our local law enforcement and they have provided outstanding support to all of our schools,” Gdovic said. “Our district safety team re-evaluates our plans and buildings on a regular basis.”

“Our safe school committee meets regularly to improve practices including visitor entry and securing of building exits,” McKeesport Area's Gabauer wrote.

West Mifflin Area School District hired a security consultant last year to review its practices and procedures. That district plans to introduce metal detectors at its middle school in response to the recommendations.

West Mifflin Area High School already is outfitted with metal detectors. Castagna said there are no current plans to install them at the elementary buildings but those entities are equipped with security doors and visitors must be buzzed in to gain access to the schools.

East Allegheny has metal detectors at all of its buildings.

“We have a plan in place for any possible security breach,” D'Emidio said. “We have a guide that is referenced to address any and all situations. We have conducted emergency drills and training in the past and will continue to implement more training for evacuation procedures.”

“We've had some calls praising us for our safety plans and for the information we provide to our parents,” Clairton's Trubiani said. “We've had security guards and metal detectors at the two main entrances for several years.”

Clairton Education Center doors generally are locked at all times. Visitors sign in and wear a name badge. Usually two unarmed guards are at the main entrances, and an additional two guards are throughout the building.

In Norwin, Kerr said staff and administrators had emergency incident training during recent years and additional training, as previously planned, will occur for all district employees this year.

He noted that all seven district schools, as well as the administration and maintenance building, will undergo a state police risk and vulnerability assessment.

“We are fortunate as a community to share a close relationship with our emergency responders, and (Pleasant Hills Chief Ed) Cunningham and (Jefferson Hills Chief Gene) Roach have stayed in contact today and will continue to patrol our schools on a daily basis,” Rajgopal wrote. “We will also continue to review our safety procedures in place in the district with them to ensure we follow the (district) emergency management plan at all times.”

Ways of notifying parents of what's going on include School Messenger, a system Norwin uses to send emergency messages via telephone call, text or email to parents and guardians.

AlertNow is used in West Jefferson Hills.

“The AlertNow Notification Service allows us to send a telephone, text or email message to you, providing important information about school events or emergencies,” Rajgopal wrote to parents at the start of the school year.

When AlertNow calls are sent out, Caller ID displays the school's main number, or “411” if the message is an emergency. Messages can be left on any sort of voicemail system.

EF's Rocco said his district also uses AlertNow.

“The district is reviewing all of its emergency plans at this time,” Rocco said. “We are deeply saddened by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary and our prayers go out to the family of the students, staff and entire community.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or Staff writers Michael DiVittorio, Stacy Lee, Eric Slagle and Jennifer R. Vertullo contributed.

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