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Blairsville-Saltsburg School District begins new locked-door policy after hours

Jeff Himler
| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 11:13 a.m.

Blairsville-Saltsburg school buildings are now locked tight after the instructional day is over.

Save when a public event is being held after hours at a school building, district officials noted Wednesday that the facilities now are to be locked at the end of each school day.

Superintendent Tammy Whitfield discussed the new policy in the Saltsburg Middle/High School auditorium before an audience of more than 45 attending the second of two district sessions addressing school security in the wake of last month's mass shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Whitfield acknowledged the policy change presents an inconvenience for those involved in afterschool activities. But she indicated it's part of the district's plan to “harden” its facilities and make them as secure as possible against a potential intruder intent on doing harm.

“The building will remain locked,” Whitfield said. “If there's a practice, the coach will have a swipe card to open the door.”

But, students who may forget their homework in their school locker when they leave for the day will no longer be able to return to the building to get it.

As part of security improvements at its Saltsburg and Blairsville campuses, the district in recent years has issued ID cards that employees are to swipe when they enter a school building. Also, security cameras have been updated and all schools now have a vestibule that directs daytime visitors to the main office to check in before gaining access to other areas of the building.

School board member Holly Gibson noted she suggested the need for better after-school security at the district's first school safety session on Jan. 3. The new locked-door policy “was done the next day,” she said with satisfaction.

Gibson said she was happy to abide by the policy when her daughter forgot some books in her locker. “If it's an inconvenience, it's an inconvenience,” she said.

But, “There are a lot of bugs to be worked out,” she admitted, noting some teachers had problems gaining access to training held after the school day.

With input from Sgt. Michael Schmidt of the state police barracks in Indiana, school officials and audience members debated more extreme — and expensive — options for securing district buildings.

Former Saltsburg councilman Jack Edmundson and Blairsville area resident Ryan Maher both expressed support for hiring armed police officers to stand guard at district schools.

“I think it's the way to go,” said Edmundson. “I think the mere presence of a trooper in the school is a deterrent.”

Schmidt noted such a presence comes with a cost of about $180,000 per trooper. He explained that some districts in eastern Pennsylvania have gone the route of enlisting state police protection, but the troopers must use overtime hours for the extra duty and, therefore, get paid at a time-and-a-half rate. Other options, he noted, would include the district forming its own police department or hiring armed security guards.

Edmundson noted security guards would not have the same level of training police officers could bring to the job.

If on a normal patrol duty, Schmidt has noted state police can't expect to arrive at the scene of a school crisis in less than 15 minutes.

Maher said, if a trooper instead was already stationed at the school, “It may not stop the incident from happening, but at least we have a minute and a half response time.”

Gibson suggested the possibility of having some teachers carrying firearms to help protect themselves and their students.

“Among the teachers, that's not what they signed up for,” Maher commented. “I don't think that's a good idea.”

Regardless of whom a district assigned to handle armed security, Schmidt noted the individuals would require Act 235 lethal weapons certification and training. Whitfield said she's aware of only two district employees who have that certification.

School board President Ed Smith said a board committee will meet to review security options for the district. George Rowley, who represents the district on the Arin Intermediate Unit board, reported that an effort is under way to create a countywide school incident management team with a related planning meeting set for Feb. 7.

During the school board's regular Wednesday meeting that followed, the district voted to expand dual enrollment options for B-S students. The dual enrollment program allows qualifying high school students to attend courses at participating colleges for college credit.

The district inked new dual enrollment agreements with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College and LaRoche University, in addition to six other institutions that already participate. Gibson noted the high school students may also take advantage of reduced costs for the courses, with rates averaging between $150 and $200 per credit.

In a related motion, Blairsville-Saltsburg agreed that college credits students earn through dual enrollment also will count toward their high school graduation requirements in corresponding subject areas.

The school board extended its transportation contract with Smith Bus Co. through 2018. Annual payments due Smith are to increase in step with the consumer price index, capped at a 3-percent hike. Retaining an existing clause, the new contract calls for the district to pick up a portion or all of the additional cost of diesel fuel for buses if the price increases beyond established benchmarks.

The board hired two long-term substitutes at Blairsville Elementary School: Kristi Bowser, filling in for Eileen Jeffries; and Maria Olechovski, as a reading specialist for the remainder of the 2012-2013 school year. Each will be paid a prorated salary of $20,000 with no additional benefits.

District officials indicated hiring of the reading specialist was supported in part through a Rural and Small School grant of about $35,000. The grant also will help provide resources for the district's new ESL (English as a second language) program.

The following supplemental contracts were approved: Ab Dettorre and James Buckles, Blairsville campus athletic co-directors; Glenn Richards, Saltsburg High School baseball head coach; Candida Francisco. volunteer Saltsburg majorette coach; Tammy DiLoreto, Blairsville High School volleyball junior high head coach; Whitney Shearer, BHS volleyball junior high assistant coach: David Conrad, volunteer Saltsburg High School musical coach.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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