Local police ruled out for Blairsville-Saltsburg school security

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Two weeks after a Blairsville-Saltsburg School District committee expressed interest in using local police officers to provide armed security at district schools, that proposal was no longer viable and the school board halted further investigation into beefing up security with outside personnel.

At Wednesday's school board meeting, chairman Rick Harper announced the buildings and grounds committee was dropping its recommendation for obtaining security services from the police departments in Blairsville and Saltsburg boroughs, based on new information that had surfaced since the committee met on April 3. The school board then voted 6-2 against having district administrators gather further information about school security options.

Harper and Holly Gibson were outvoted in wanting the district to continue looking into the security topic that has been discussed for several months, in the wake of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

At the April 3 session, B-S officials discussed a proposal for using one officer each from the Blairsville and Saltsburg police departments at an expected combined cost of $61,000 for the 2013-14 school year.

But board members indicated, after a follow-up April 6 discussion among district and Blairsville Borough officials and Blairsville's council meeting this Tuesday, the option of using local police was no longer up for consideration.

After Wednesday's meeting, school board President Ed Smith said he'd learned from Blairsville officials that that borough's proposed offer of school security services was no longer tenable due to liability concerns and the suggestion that Blairsville police would face barriers in serving at the Blairsville school campus because it is located in neighboring Burrell Township, outside of the borough department's normal jurisdiction. He said the same issues would apply for Saltsburg Borough police.

Smith indicated either insufficient manpower or high costs have effectively eliminated other security options that school officials have discussed — hiring active or retired state troopers or county sheriff's staff.

Reached later Wednesday, Blairsville Council President John Bertolino confirmed that the borough has discovered liability and jurisdictional issues that have derailed any interest in its police handling school security. “We're not looking into it any further,” he said, noting that the borough's cost for liability insurance would increase.

Several school board members suggested that the district shelve the idea of hiring armed law enforcement. Instead, they recommended focusing on improved training, such as mock drills, to prepare teachers for responding to a possible security breach.

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

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