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Security tightens for Westmoreland, Fayette schools as year begins

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

Students and parents heading into schools this fall will encounter more security officers, cameras and background checks under safety initiatives implemented by school districts around the region.

Others have planned less visible changes, including more intense safety training for teachers and staffers or the establishment of social media accounts to keep parents and the community informed.

While many of the upgrades and changes were in the works for months or years, some were pushed through more quickly after a mass stabbing at Franklin Regional High School in April left 20 students and a security guard injured, officials said.

Police allege sophomore Alex Hribal moved through a school hallway, indiscriminately slashing and stabbing with two kitchen knives until he was subdued.

He is charged as an adult with 21 counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault and possession of a weapon on school property.

“I think because of Franklin Regional being right in our backyard, all the districts here are very cognizant,” said Barbara Marin, superintendent of Hempfield Area School District. “Franklin Regional made us all much more aware.”

More officers on patrol

At Franklin Regional, a third security guard added after the stabbing will be kept on this school year, said Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac. The guards will monitor hallways and group activities, check for parking permits on cars and help with traffic control, she said.

The district's new school resource officer, Murrysville police Officer Dave Hanko, will be stationed at the high school and will work throughout the district, Reljac said.

Many districts have increased the presence of police and other security officers to guard students' safety.

• Mt. Pleasant Area School District has hired two police officers — a soon-to-retire police chief and a retired state police corporal — to patrol its schools. District officials said plans to hire the officers and otherwise beef up security were in the works well before the Franklin Regional stabbings.

• Greater Latrobe School District will add a school resource officer, Frank Tempo of the Latrobe Police Department. The position will be paid for in part by a new security fund set up by the Greater Latrobe Partners in Education Foundation.

• Just down the road from Franklin Regional, officials in the Penn-Trafford School District voted to expand police presence at the high school from three days a week to five days this year.

• In Fayette County, the Laurel Highlands School District will increase security by stationing guards at every building entrance, said Superintendent Jesse Wallace III. The district will add hand-held metal detectors at the elementary school, double the number of security cameras at the high school and install software that will scan visitors' driver's licenses to check for criminal history.

“Most of (the changes) have been in the works for some time, but the Franklin Regional incident brought them more to the forefront at a faster pace,” Wallace said.

Employing technology

Officials in some districts have increased surveillance and reconstructed parts of buildings to monitor those entering.

• Mike Porembka, director of teaching and learning for Greater Latrobe, said the district added more security cameras to the junior high and reconfigured the entrance. Junior high students will use a new entry with a lobby walled off from the office, he said.

• Similar changes were made at Derry Area middle and high schools with vestibules added to prevent visitors from wandering through the school before checking in at the office, said Superintendent David Welling. More security cameras were installed at the middle school, he said.

• At Hempfield, upgrades include electronic door access to school buildings, new motion-activated and higher-definition security cameras and new video software that will allow officials to review footage faster, she said.

• Yough School District will replace traditional keys with electronic entry fobs for staff members, which can be programmed to open only for certain employees and at set times, said Superintendent Janet Sardon.

“We're able to limit the access to the building at certain times of the day,” Sardon said.

Yough is initializing software to check visitors' criminal history and will install walk-through metal detectors at the middle and high schools to supplement the hand-held detectors in use, she said.

Planning the response

At Hempfield. district staff, police and emergency management personnel recently met to talk through scenarios and how the district would respond. Marin said she's hoping to set up training in the spring in which faculty and staff would physically respond to a simulated crisis, such as an active shooter.

“The more proactive you are, the better chance you have when there is an emergency that you're going to respond in an appropriate way and handle things the way they need to be handled,” Marin said.

School officials have taken steps to ensure that information about security measures is made available to the public and inaccurate information is corrected.

Albert Gallatin Area School District will focus on keeping the community informed about what's going on at schools. In the weeks following the Franklin Regional stabbings, rumors of similar incidents at Albert Gallatin swirled on social media, Superintendent Carl Bezjak said.

So the school set up accounts on Twitter and Facebook over the summer, which will be used to clarify rumors and share information.

“We try to stay proactive at Albert Gallatin. Planning is the antidote to panic,” Bezjak said.

Norwin, Frazier and Ligonier Valley reported no substantive changes or upgrades to security.

Kari Andren and Jacob Tierney are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Andren can be reached at 724-850-2856 or Tierney can be reached at 724-836-6646 or writer Stacey Federoff contributed to this report.

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