Blairsville-Saltsburg officials review school security measures, will address topic again before monthly board meeting
If a crisis requiring state police intervention occurs at one of the public schools in Indiana County, the school's own staff will be the ones initially handling the situation.
“In the first 15 minutes of any incident, it's the school district that has to take charge because it's going to take that long for police to respond,” Blairsville-Saltsburg School District Superintendent Tammy Whitfield told a sparse audience Jan. 3 in the Blairsville High School auditorium.
Sgt. Michael Schmidt of the state police barracks in Indiana backed up the superintendent as he and school officials addressed the first of two special meetings of the Blairsville-Saltsburg School Board devoted to the topic of school safety.
Schmidt acknowledged, with eight high schools, numerous elementary schools and a central technology center spread across Indiana County, state troopers at any given time “cannot be a stone's throw away from each of those buildings.... You have to prepare for the first 15 minutes.”
Only a handful of community members attended last week's session, along with district staffers and local media. School officials, who are looking to engage the public on this currently prominent topic, are hoping for a better turnout at a similar meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Saltsburg Middle/High School auditorium. The regular monthly school board meeting will follow at 7 p.m.
The mass shooting incident last month at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School has focused attention more sharply than ever on school safety. But Blairsville-Saltsburg officials pointed out the district began efforts to beef up security at its buildings and to prepare for emergency situations well before then.
Business Manager Eric Kocsis explained that the district in 2009 began modifying the main entrances at each of its school buildings so that visitors during the school day can't gain access to hallways and classroom areas before first being processed through the building's main office.
“Those buildings are locked down during the day,” he added. Visitors must first announce their arrival through an exterior intercom before being admitted to the main office.
Secure entrances were provided in 2009 at the elementary and high school offices of the updated Saltsburg school campus, which gained an elementary-school addition to the existing high school.
In 2011, an update of the Blairsville campus provided three similar secured vestibules — one each for the elementary, middle school and high school offices.
Other security measures include positioning of 48 cameras inside and outside at the Saltsburg campus along with 64 cameras placed at the Blairsville campus. Kocsis noted school officials are considering updating a dozen cameras at Blairsville Elementary that are among the oldest in use at the district.
Also, school staff now swipe ID cards to gain access to the building where they are assigned. “Now we know who's going in and out of the buildings,” Kocsis explained.
Whitfield noted Blairsville-Saltsburg officials can't provide any guarantees that an intruder will never gain access to a district building. She said the district's goal is to “harden” its buildings as much as possible against such an occurrence.
“We can take as many precautions as we can to harden the site, but there's always room for improvement,” she said.
In addition to making capital improvements, the district has invested in planning and training to help prepare its staff to cope with a crisis.
Whitfield noted Blairsville-Saltsburg has signed memoranda of understanding with every other school district in Armstrong and Indiana counties and the technology center for students in each county, assuring that each will “step forward with resources and assistance” if a crisis occurs at any of the participating districts. She said agreements also are in place providing 16 different off-campus locations where Blairsville or Saltsburg students could be taken in the event district schools must be evacuated.
Whitfield noted an “Alert Now” system that is used to quickly contact parents to inform them of a weather-related delay or cancellation of classes also can be used to keep parents informed if a crisis situation occurs. “Within a timely manner, you will be notified as to what is happening,” she told parents.
According to Whitfield, the district has drafted a “very comprehensive emergency plan” that addresses a variety of potential threats or emergencies including: an intruder or shooter, possibly with a hostage; an abduction; a bomb or bioterrorism threat; a pandemic or medical situation; an incident involving a school bus; weather-related hazards; and a suicide. “That is something we take very seriously,” Whitfield said of the latter crisis situation.
The superintendent said district officials began to consider those various “what if” situations about three years ago and decided that district staff needed more training to better prepare for potential hazards.
B-S staff heard a presentation by Lt. Col Dave Grossman, a former psychology professor and Army Ranger who is a nationally known speaker on aggression and violent crime.
Whitfield noted district staffers also have undergone training offered through the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and will complete more training next summer. She said one of the benefits of the NIMS system is that it provides a “common language” that school districts and various emergency organizations all can understand during a crisis.
According to Schmidt, past federal directives have prompted individual crisis planning for schools, police agencies and emergency management officials. But he said those divergent plans have not always worked well together.
“Now there's a bit of a disconnect between what (police) expect and what teachers expect when we come into a school,” he said.
So, Schmidt said, a current goal at the county level is to coordinate those various plans.
That's started to occur at Blairsville-Saltsburg, as the district has provided police a detailed site plan for all its facilities, and state police — along with other area emergency agencies — conducted a simulated “active shooter” response drill this past summer at Blairsville High School.
Whitfield noted the drill resulted immediately in one simple but effective security improvement at the district. At the suggestion of police, she said, room numbers have now been posted on window exteriors to help emergency responders more readily determine room locations from the outside of each school building.
Schmidt observed that Blairsville-Saltsburg has adopted a full range of such low-cost security measures as well as some moderate-cost initiatives. Now, he said, the district must decide if it wants to invest in more involved measures. He told district officials, “You and your board have to decide what level of security you're comfortable with.”
Schmidt discussed two of the most costly options for heightening security at a school campus — installing metal detectors to scan those entering school buildings or hiring armed security guards.
Schmidt noted an intruder seeking to gain unauthorized entry to a school will target the weakest link in the building's security system. He said the recent incident at Sandy Hook brought to light one such weakness when the shooter reportedly bypassed other security obstacles by simply shooting out the glass in a door to gain entry.
To guard against such a tactic, Schmidt said, “You can use laminated glass and make it harder to get in.”
But, he noted, a determined individual might simply try a different approach, such as ramming a vehicle into the building.
“There's just no stopping crazy,” school board member Rick Harper said. “The best you can do is reduce your reaction time to an incident like that. Maybe you can save more lives.”
“I think we're as safe as we can possibly be” at Blairsville-Saltsburg, school board member Ed Smith said. “We don't want to overreact.”
But, he added that budgetary concerns should not be a hindrance if the board decides to further enhance security: “We're not going to put a dollar sign on that.”
He suggested that school directors review security issues by meeting as a committee of the whole board.
Following the meeting, Whitfield indicated that “everything is on the table” as far as additional security steps the district may consider.
School board member Holly Gibson said she sees a need for increased security during athletic practice sessions and other afterschool activities. She suggested that coaches could be required to use swipe cards to enter school facilities after hours and could be responsible for letting in participating students.
Gibson asked parents who may have suggestions for improving safety and security at school to contact their building principal or the superintendent.
Amanda Vresilovic, a Blairsville High School graduate with a son currently attending kindergarten at Blairsville Elementary School, questioned how much the district prepares students to respond to a crisis situation at school. “The teachers might have a plan in place, but do the children know what to do?” she asked.
In addition to conducting regular drills for such emergencies as a fire or tornado, the district now will conduct a “lock-down drill” at least once a month at all school including elementary buildings, Whitfield replied.
While it may take a year for police and a hosting district to coordinate plans for a full-scale shooter drill, Whitfield said Blairsville-Saltsburg plans to take advantage of another option that requires less preparation — having a free risk assessment of its facilities completed by state police. She explained police will conduct a walk-through of a school building and will provide advice on how security could be enhanced.
But, at least one school board member and a parent reported instances when security policies already in place at the district apparently were ignored.
As part of the process of admitting daytime visitors to a school building, Whitfield said all individuals are to sign in at the main office and show ID. But, in the related incidents, visitors who were known to district staff reportedly were admitted without being asked to show identification.
“If we've dropped the ball somewhere along the line, it's good to know,” said veteran school board member George Rowley.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.