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Crisis prep is school norm in Western Pennsylvania

Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

As schools prepare to open for a new year for the first time since the Newtown school shootings, orientations for parents and students are serious, somber and largely about safety.

A 90-minute orientation for kindergarten parents at Apollo-Ridge Elementary School in Spring Church emphasized rules for visitors and how parents should meet their children at the bus. Students at University Park Elementary School in Monroeville practice monthly preparedness drills for intruder alerts and lockdowns.

On every campus, the words “safety” and “security” are greeted with an ominous sense of normalcy.

“This generation has grown up like that; my generation never thought about it,” said Jim Lauria, director of public safety at Pittsburgh Technical Institute.

Patrick O'Toole, superintendent of Upper St. Clair School District, said young parents, especially those educated before the Columbine shootings in 1999, confront a seismic shift from the policy and procedure they experienced a quarter century ago.

School shootings at Sandy Hook in December and the Atlanta-area school last week, where a bookkeeper was credited with talking down a man armed with an assault-style rifle, are fresh in the minds of educators.

“What we do today is radically different from 1975, when I was a first-year teacher,” said Michael Strutt, superintendent of Butler Area School District. “There were no safety procedures then. These events have forced us into situations we never thought about when we trained to be teachers.”

Four days before Sandy Hook, the Butler Area school board voted to arm the district's existing guards, all retired Pennsylvania state troopers, Strutt said. The staff and students aren't alarmed when they see metal detectors and bolted doors, he said. The district's student advisory committee tells him the precautions are “a good idea.”

“The thing is, we're running a school, not a prison,” said Amy Klinger, assistant professor of educational administration at Ohio's Ashland University. “We strive for safety that makes sense, security that isn't oppressive. The odds of an active shooter incident are low, so it's just as important that we plan for and prepare and train for things other than the worst-case scenario.”

Parents, she said, often internalize fear more than their young children.

“A lot of times, parents are anxious because they haven't been given enough information,” Klinger said. “They see things in the news and get upset, but then there's a double standard at school. They want the receptionist to check everyone's ID, but not theirs, because, ‘C'mon, you know me.' ”

At Upper St. Clair, front office personnel run mini-background checks with state-issued IDs, instantly scanning for red flags they may need to tip off authorities of a potentially dangerous situation. When University Park Elementary runs its drills, Principal Brian Werner said, he also sends text alerts to parents.

“It gives parents a chance to talk about it later with their kids,” he said. “That wayeveryone knows what's going on. You'd be amazed at the positive response we get from such a potentially negative event.”

Klinger travels with the nonprofit Educator's School Safety Network doing intruder assessments, in which mock visitors slip into school buildings and walk around until a student or employee notices their unauthorized presence andaddresses it.

“You would think that would go pretty quickly — just tailgate in beside a parent, knock on a door near a child, squeeze through a propped open cafeteria door — and get noticed right away, but it usually takes 15 minutes or more before anyone says anything,” she said. “Sure, maybe the visitor gets a few sideways looks, but people don't speak up because they don't know how. Training fixes that.”

Lauria said training administrators is not enough.

“When we go in to work with a school, we sit the teachers down in their own classrooms and ask, ‘How would you get out of here in a disaster?' She says, ‘Well, that window would be great if it weren't sealed.' So we unseal it and secure it from the inside,” he said. “We make sure each teacher would know what to do in any situation.”

Spokeswoman Cara Zanella said educators at Gateway School District in Monroeville undergo frequent training and safety walks by regional law enforcement. Teachers are straightforward with older students. For little ones, they stay calm and maintain control.

For new students, any big open campus can cause anxiety, Lauria said.

“It takes us all,” he said, “to prove to ourselves by repetition and reputation that no matter what happens, everyone will be ready.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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