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Mon Valley school districts boost security

| Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, 1:07 a.m.
Stephen Hurley | Tribune Review
Dr. Brad Ferko, Superintendent of Charleroi School District delivers the news of the passing of High School Principal Vince Vitori at a press conference, who passed away suddenly on May 19, 2011. Stephen Hurley | Tribune Review SH_Vitori0520-3.jpg Story for: Amy Crawford

Two area school districts have dealt with dangerous situations involving weapons in recent months.

In both cases, the districts avoided the type of mayhem that occurred a week ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults lost their lives in a shooting spree.

In the Monessen City School District, officials moved quickly to improve security after three football players brought drugs and guns into the locker room at Memorial Stadium Oct. 6.

All three were expelled for one calendar year.

Charleroi Area High School senior Ryan Pfrogner was arrested in November for allegedly making pipe bombs and bringing one on school property. Investigators also found three plastic pipe bombs at his Speers residence.

While Charleroi Area and Monessen each had policies in place when the respective incidents occurred in their districts, the Sandy Hook massacre has local school officials examining their security procedures and crisis plans to ensure the safety of students.

Monessen Superintendent Linda Marcolini said her district has added even more security measures in the elementary center since the Sandy Hook slayings.

“We've done so many things since last Friday,” Marcolini said. “Parents are aware of the things we're doing. It's not just at the elementary center, though. There have been all kinds of changes here and at the middle/high school.”

She said the elementary center will see the most significant changes.

One noticeable change is that all classroom doors in both Monessen buildings are now locked during class time.

“I feel that keeping the classrooms locked while kids are in class is important,” Marcolini said. “Districtwide, no doors are to be propped open. If we come across a teacher or student that is doing this, then they will be subject to disciplinary action.”

During a faculty in-service day Jan. 2, elementary staff members will learn how to use metal detectors and wands and to search student belongings.

Another metal detector will be added at the facility, Marcolini said.

“Beginning Jan. 3, all students will go through the metal detectors,” Marcolini added. “Also, the main doors for the school will be locked until 8 a.m.

“Any teacher that is coming in earlier than that will need to enter the building through my office door near the stadium.”

Marcolini said that at times, teachers report to work as early as 6:45 a.m.

“If they don't want to enter through that entrance, then they'll have to wait until they can be buzzed in at the front doors,” she said. “We'll continue to have one point of entry throughout the day.”

Marcolini said that she has asked staff to be vigilant and report anything suspicious inside and outside the buildings.

Marcolini said she has contacted Sandra Smythe in the Westmoreland County Public Safety Office.

She said Smythe helps to develop crisis intervention plans for school districts.

Monessen police Chief Mark Gibson, school district police officer John Bachinski and Marcolini met Thursday to review safety plans and “make sure everyone was on the same page,” Marcolini said.

On Jan. 7, the three will meet with county Sheriff Jonathan Held.

“We want to make sure we are conducting more periodic exercises and drills,” Marcolini said. “We have certain codes that if something happens, we know the response we need to have. We'll look to improve our practices after the first of the year.

“While we do have a safety and security plan in place, we're hoping to have ... a soundproof plan in place by the end of the school year.”

Charleroi Area Superintendent Dr. Brad Ferko will reach out to parents and community members.

At 12:30 and 6 p.m. on Jan. 9, the district will host a community forum.

“I really want to talk about parental concerns and what we can do, in their eyes, to improve the security here at Charleroi,” Ferko said.

Ferko said there are new cameras in place at the elementary and middle-high schools.

“We're not going to have some knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Connecticut,” Ferko said. “We're not reacting because of what occurred. We do have a crisis plan, and we have done an active shooter drill.”

Charleroi Area has a buzzer school entry system similar to other districts in the Mon Valley.

“The truth is that the shooter in Connecticut shot through the school's buzzer system,” Ferko added. “We're really focusing on our teachers and their professional development. It always helps to take policies and procedures and try to make them better.

“We're getting the input of our staff, and we've accomplished a lot.”

Belle Vernon Area Superintendent Dr. John Wilkinson said he met with district principals to review procedures and protocol.

“We're making sure that we're as visible as possible,” Wilkinson said. “The tragedy in Connecticut brought a real sense of urgency that we make sure everyone in the district, students and staff, know that we support them 100 percent.

“We're going to be doing a real thorough audit of our security procedures. I think we've done a great job in making our schools safe, and we're going to reiterate what we're doing and what we have been doing.”

Officers armed

Dr. Karen Polkabla, Ringgold School District superintendent, said security personnel will continue to scan visitors who enter the buildings.

“Right now we have security officers that spend a couple days in one building and the remaining days in another building,” Polkabla said. “We're going to look into getting a more permanent schedule where the same officer can be in the same building all the time.

“We hope to have something more permanent. We do have an armed security person in each building every day.”

Monessen and Charleroi Area school police officers are armed. Bachinski is a former Monessen city police chief.

“Our officer is an actual police officer,” Ferko said. “He is an armed officer, and he's very visible. We're going to work on ways to increase his visibility.”

Belle Vernon Area security personnel are not armed, but one school board member anticipates a change.

“I would expect it,” director Joe Grata said. “I think it will be a subject of a recommendation from the superintendent.”

Wilkinson, the father of three girls, said he was in shock when he heard about the events in Newtown.

“I have a first-grader. She has a couple of buddies that are in kindergarten,” Wilkinson said. “It's tough when you're in the position of being a superintendent and a father.

“My eighth-grade daughter, she gets it. My daughter in sixth grade gets it, but doesn't quite have the sense of thinking about it. When it comes to the little one, we've shielded her from all of it.

“She can't understand it. She doesn't have the abstract thinking to comprehend it.”

Marcolini said she tried to put herself in the place of Janet Robinson, the Newtown superintendent.

“As the weekend went on and we heard more and more, I really just put myself in that place,” Marcolini said. “All I could think of was, ‘Oh God.' I just kept on thinking, you have to be able to deal with that.”

Innocence lost

“We all stood in horror when Columbine happened and we were all appalled when the Virginia Tech massacre happened,” Ferko said. “To think of someone going into an elementary school with the sole purpose of killing innocent little kids ... it's almost like our nation lost some of its innocence that day.

“I hope six to eight months from now we still remember how we feel today.”

He said the best thing to come of this is that “we bonded with staff and students of Sandy Hook Elementary.”

“It's important that we've all done a lot to keep our kids safe,” Ferko said. “What we're doing now is taking the opportunity to make them even safer.”

Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2667.

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