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Penn-Trafford school emergency plans being reviewed

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 10:04 p.m.

Penn-Trafford administrators will seek input from local police and the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety this month as they review the district's emergency-response plans in light of last month's fatal shooting of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.

District officials discussed school safety with building principals during a meeting before the holiday break but plan to expand their evaluation by meeting with law-enforcement agencies this month.

“With that incident, we just want to review and reconnect to make sure everyone's in the same place,” Assistant Superintendent Matthew Harris said.

School safety became a major topic nationwide in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

For years, Penn-Trafford schools have had a buzz-through system that requires office staffers to respond to visitors who presses a button near the locked front doors. After the visitor is identified, an employee temporarily unlocks the doors so the visitor can enter the building and check in at the front office.

In June 2009, the school board paid $75,240 to install surveillance cameras at the high school, middle schools and the Boundless Playground at McCullough Elementary.

Penn Township police also have had a presence in the schools in recent years. The department's safe-schools initiatives include a school resource officer at the high school and a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for younger students.

Since Chief John Otto took over the force in 2011, officers added visits to bus stops to the list of ways they interact with students. After Newtown, Otto said he spent time dissecting several of the recent school shootings to analyze how his department could ensure the quickest response time during an incident.

“In my first interview as chief of police, I indicated my support for school safety and our children, and I will put the work of the police officers up against any other department around,” he said.

Brian Ellicker, the emergency management coordinator for Trafford, said he wants officials from the borough's volunteer fire department and Trafford Emergency Medical Service to participate in the meeting along with borough police.

“I have a feeling this (the Newtown shooting) is going to have some very long-lasting effects as far as school security,” said Ellicker, a former police officer.

Trafford Mayor Rey Peduzzi, a former Penn-Trafford High School principal, also wants to attend the meeting. He put the blame for the incident on violent video games and movies.

“We have developed a whole generation of desensitized people,” Peduzzi said.

Until the shootings, Judy Gross, a mother of three children, said she thought the greatest concern was keeping child predators away, not an armed assailant.

Gross said the schools are diligent in screening who is visiting, but she recommends that the district develop a lockdown plan similar to the air-raid drills of the 1950s.

“I am not suggesting an alarmist reaction that predicts impending doom and creates fear in our children,” she wrote in an email.

“Building a plan of reaction empowers the children and helps them respond with less panic.

“We insist they wear seat belts and protective sports gear; we admonish them to sanitize their hands; we teach them not to talk to strangers. Why not teach them skills for life on what do to survive a serious crisis?”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8671 or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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