Mt. Pleasant Area School District explores police security
Months prior to the mass stabbing in April at Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Mt. Pleasant Area School District officials were seeking ways to better protect its students, faculty and staff, said Robert Gumbita, president of the district's board of education.
“Security has always been important to me,” said Gumbita, who has served on the board since the late 1990s.
“These tragedies ... they can happen in Mt. Pleasant, too,” he said.
Franklin Regional sophomore Alex Hribal, 16, of Murrysville is accused of taking two 8-inch kitchen knives to school on April 9 and going on a rampage that left 20 students and a security guard injured.
He is charged as an adult with 21 counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault and one count of possession of a weapon on school property.
Hribal is being held without bail at the Regional Youth Services Center in Hempfield. His trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in October.
Gumbita said the fact that Mt. Pleasant Area officials were already working on upgrading security at the school when the Franklin Regional incident occurred speaks volumes.
“I'm pretty proud that we were on top of things, and we're being proactive, not reactive,” Gumbita said.
Some of those measures, he said, included installation of a comprehensive camera surveillance system and state-of-the-art locking mechanisms throughout all district buildings, including: Mt. Pleasant Area Junior-Senior High School, along with Donegal, Norvelt, Ramsay and Rumbaugh elementary schools, and the district administration building.
In March, the district received more than $22,000 in funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Education which was used to further improve the camera system and to purchase a RAPTOR visitor identification system.
Most recently, the district's school board voted in July to authorize its administrative staff, led by Superintendent Timothy Gabauer, to explore the terms and conditions of hiring two, armed school police officers to join the security guard already employed by the district beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
“When I started this job in November, it became pretty clear that safety and security were of top priority in this district, and there was a lot of discussion about that at the time,” Gabauer said. “Are we doing enough? What are we doing? What should we be doing to make the schools safer?”
Such talking points eventually transgressed to the procurement of trained, experienced personnel from the law enforcement community, he said.
“Our goal is still to have this happen when we open our doors for the 2014-15 school year,” Gabauer said.
Safety and security committee is established
Immediately following the swearing in of the current school board in late 2013, its members voted to establish a safety and security committee for which board member Warren Leeder was appointed chairman by Gumbita.
Leeder was joined on the committee by fellow board members and appointees Rick Albright and George Hare.
“Even before I got on the board, this board was proactive,” Leeder said. “In the last couple of years, they were installing cameras and locks all around the buildings. That was huge.”
Soon after the committee was formed, Leeder said he, Albright and Hare agreed that the next best step would be to establish an ad-hoc subcommittee to solicit the volunteer assistance of experts in the field of security, along with local law enforcement and political leaders.
The response to the need for subcommittee members was strong, as a variety of individuals pledged to devote their time to devising ways to enhance the level of security in the district's buildings and on its grounds, Leeder said.
Those stepping forward included: Stephen Ober, chief of the Mt. Pleasant Borough Police Department; Norvelt District Judge Roger F. Eckels; John Sarnese, a local, retired security and investigations expert; Chad Treber, Westmoreland County deputy sheriff; John Walton, warden of Westmoreland County Prison; borough Mayor Gerald Lucia; Donegal Borough Mayor Brit Grimes; Frank Puskar, a Mt. Pleasant Township supervisor; Tom Stull, a Donegal Township supervisor; and Brian Ruff, the district's buildings and grounds supervisor.
Tours lead to recommendation
In February, the committee members and the ad-hoc subcommittee toured all district buildings.
The group then came up with a list of potential security upgrades that would enhance safety at each of the buildings.
At the top of that list of recommendations was the hiring of the officers, and that they be armed.
“I highly recommended that, when you have police in schools, that they be armed,” said Sarnese, a former district school board president and U.S. Army veteran who, prior to retiring, served as executive vice president of Data Watch, a company which coordinated security measures for myriad governmental agencies and corporate entities across the nation.
“You have to have a different level of security, with people coming in with bombs, guns and knives. You have to be a step ahead,” he said.
Solicitor will navigate legal process
District solicitor John Toohey said a legal process awaits pending the district's potential hire of armed police officers.
Once the board votes to hire the officials as district employees, Toohey will file a petition before a judge at the county level requesting that the judge sign an order outlining their authority, he said.
“What I will be asking for is that they will have the same powers as state police and local police forces,” Toohey said.
Toohey added that, in the event of a hire, he will work with state police to develop an Originating Agency Identifier (ORI) number for the district.
“All police departments have that,” he said. “It's a number by which departments are identified, and it's a necessary legal step to allow officers to be in a school in this role.”
In addition, anyone hired to assume the posts will be required to have all necessary certifications, training and background checks required of current police officers, Toohey said.
“If these are retired officers, they will have to have all of those requirements completed,” he said.
Budget contains $75K to cover costs
The district's 2014-15 budget allotted $75,000 — or roughly half of a district mill — which will allow for compensation of two officers, according to Brent Filak, the district's business manager.
“There is no doubt that, before the Franklin Regional tragedy ever happened, the district school board members and administration had already discussed forming this committee,” said Filak, who was hired to his position last November.
Officials seek to put public at ease
While the money budgeted to compensate the police officers contributed to a $31.3 million spending plan which resulted in a 3.92 mill tax increase, Walton — a district resident — said the additional expenditure is worth it.
“No one ever wants a tax increase, but if I have to pay more taxes to have this kind of thing in place, that's something I am willing to take on ... it's our responsibility to do this if it means keeping our kids safe,” Walton said.
Gabauer added that it is paramount to keep district parents clear regarding the ultimate purpose of employing the armed police officers if that comes to pass.
“When you're going into a district that has not had an armed police presence, sometimes there might be a little hesitance. Every family within the district deserves reassurance that we are doing everything in our power relative to the safety and security of our students,” he said. “We know that school exists to educate and prepare the students, but for our students and their parents to know that they are safe and secure enables that learning environment to proceed more effectively.”
The board will likely vote on the hiring of the two police officers at its regular, monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
“I think the community is going to be very pleased when they see who we have to add, and how they are going to fit into our district,” Gabauer said.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.