Blairsville-Saltsburg School District employs part-time armed officers, plans to hire more
Armed officers will become a familiar presence on the twin campuses of Blairsville-Saltsburg School District as the school board has hired three former members of the state police force to provide a new level of security at district facilities.
At its Feb. 19 meeting, the board unanimously agreed to hire Michael Schmidt, Kirt Allmendinger and Kirk Nolan as part-time school police officers, with their wages to be paid from a state Safe Schools grant the district recently received.
Ian Magness, assistant superintendent, indicated the retired officers previously were stationed either at the Indiana or Greensburg barracks of the state police. He declined to cite a date when they would begin carrying out their new roles at Blairsville-Saltsburg but noted the intent is to have “at least one armed police officer on duty” on each of the Saltsburg and Blairsville school campuses.
According to Magness, the district intends to hire more individuals to create a pool of officers who would be available for the school security detail. He noted the pay rate and hours for officers will be driven by restrictions dictated by the state retirement systems for police officers and school employees. The officers will receive no benefits.
Magness said the Safe Schools grant is considered seed money for launching the force of school police officers. For this initial year, he said, $40,000 of the grant will cover 100 percent of the costs including wages, uniforms and some equipment. The officers will carry their own firearms but will also be equipped with such gear as Tasers and Mace.
The grant program requires the district to fund the officer positions for a second year, the 2014-15 school year, but state funding in that year would be decreased by 50 percent, to $20,000.
“These guys are tremendously professional,” Magness said of the school officers, noting they all have required certification under the state's Lethal Weapons Training Act.
The officers will get additional training from the district — child abuse training that is provided for all district staff and familiarization with special education services. “They'll be educated so they know what is going on in the classroom,” Magness said.
To pave the way for the officers' presence, he said, letters will be sent to district parents so “they can have a conversation with their children” about the new security measure.
The school board also approved a job description for the school police officers, requiring that they have extensive experience with law enforcement agencies and the ability to “establish and maintain effective working relationships with and among the students, staff, administration and the general public” and to “exercise tact and diplomacy in dealing with sensitive, complex and/or confidential issues and situations with respect for the rights of others.”
The officers will be expected to patrol the campuses during the arrival of faculty and staff, the arrival and dismissal of students, and the arrival and departure of students and patrons at extra-curricular activities.
Officers also will monitor the entry of the general public to all buildings; perform walk-through inspections of buildings; perform a yearly safety audit in consultation with the district's Workplace Safety Committee and emergency response providers; and serve as members of the School Emergency Response Team.
Magness stressed that the new school police officers will provide a “well-armed, deterrent security presence” but will not have arrest or investigatory powers.
In instances were a criminal investigation or arrest are called for, he said, the district will look to active state police, who continue to have jurisdiction over both school campuses.
The school police officers' duties also include; providing “opportunities for parent forums and other educational efforts to demonstrate the importance of school safety;” and conducting presentations on school safety and security for community groups.
The board conducted an initial review of a proposed district policy that sets forth procedures for persons authorized to use weapons.
The policy calls for those using firearms or other weapons to qualify in their use at least once a year. Any firearms, Tasers, other weapons and handcuffs stored on district property are to be kept under lock with ammunition removed from firearms.
According to the proposed policy, “Firearms/Tasers may be discharged only during times when the life of the officer or life of another is threatened or in jeopardy of serious bodily injury or death.”
The policy prohibits school officers from firing “warning shots” with their weapons, from engaging in vehicular chases or from participating in “hot pursuit.”
During public comments, Ryan Maher of Burrell Township, who has pressed the school board to hire armed officers for the past year, thanked school directors for employing the three officers but argued they could have taken the action earlier.
Referring to a past comment by school board President Ed Smith that “money is of no object” in addressing school security, Maher added, “The actions of the board have clearly demonstrated otherwise.”
Maher pointed out the board didn't hire its school police officers until it received the Safe Schools grant, though it recently approved spending money to start a varsity soccer program.
Several board members said they felt comfortable supporting the soccer program because they anticipated receiving the security grant. Board members also pointed out they earlier considered hiring local borough officers to provide school security but that deal fell through.
School director Holly Gibson suggested that hiring armed officers for district schools “was never a dead issue” and that continuing to have the officers in place won't be dependent on state grants. “If the money dries up, it isn't going to go away,” she said.
The school board reviewed a proposed 2014-15 school calendar that would continue early dismissal of students on all Fridays — a schedule that was introduced this academic year primarily to provide extra time for teachers to meet growing professional development demands. The proposed calendar sets Aug. 27 and June 4 as the respective first and last days for student instruction.
Blairsville parent Amanda Vresilovic said she feels the partial instructional schedule on Fridays is short-changing students and causing an undue burden for parents.
She questioned the ability of secondary students to gain quality instructional time on Fridays, with shorter class periods of just 28 minutes. She added that she and her husband, who both work outside of their home, have found it a hardship to obtain child care for that one day a week.
Magness acknowledged that day care arrangements have been challenging for parents of elementary students. But, he said, the extra planning and training time for teachers has been valuable. He said scheduling of some back-to-back course sessions in middle school grades helps to offset the shortened class periods.
The school board accepted a Rural and Low-Income School Grant of $33,145 for the 2013-14 school year. Magness explained the money will be used for three purposes: continuing to augment the district's English as a Second Language resources; improving Internet filtering to exceed federal standards for child protection; and hiring an additional reading specialist at Blairsville Elementary School for the remainder of the school year.
The board authorized the district's architectural and engineering consultant, HHSDR, to take preliminary action on several proposed buildings and grounds improvements on the Blairsville end of the district.
The district is asking HHSDR to evaluate the 20-year-old air-conditioning systems for the Blairsville High School auditorium and the district central office while also considering air conditioning for the school's cafeteria. At the same time, the firm will look into a standby power solution for the school's freezer and refrigeration unit.
HHSDR also was authorized to proceed with design and bidding of repairs to an eroded area in the northwest corner of the Blairsville football stadium that resulted from heavy rainfall early in the school year. “We're looking at $140,000 to $150,000 to get that fixed,” board member Rick Harper suggested.
He said insurance may cover work needed to address problems with drainage pipes at the field but it will not cover work to restore affected soil.
The board also directed HHSDR to complete a feasibility study of proposed improvements to the visitors' bleachers at the stadium.Harper called the bleachers “abysmal” while fellow board member Holly Hall noted they aren't handicapped-accessible.
The school board accepted a $1,500 grant from the Pennsylvania Game Commission toward the cost of launching international-style target archery as a “lifetime fitness activity” in the district's high school physical education curriculum. It also approved establishment of an Archery Club at Saltsburg Middle/High School at no cost to the district.
In personnel matters, the school board approved Family and Medical Leave Act leaves for: Saltsburg Elementary teacher Julie Obney, from about May 22 through the end of the current school year; Naysa Altmeyer, Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, from about March 14 through the end of the school year; custodian Kristin Stine, intermittently, effective Feb. 20 through the end of the school year.
A leave also was approved for a staffer identified only as “Employee 0711,” intermittently through the end of the school year.
In related action, the board hired Jessica Monk as a long-term substitute for Altmeyer and Amelia Crocker as a long-term substitute for Saltsburg biology instructor Linsey Palazzi, who is on leave through the end of the school year. Each of the substitutes will receive a prorated salary of $20,000 with no additional benefits.
The board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Blairsville-Saltsburg Education Association to allow establishment of a coaching staff and salaries for the new district-wide soccer program next school year.
The boys' and girls' varsity teams each will have a head coach, each paid $3,852, and an assistant coach, each receiving a salary of $2,575.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or email@example.com.