'Armed security' accompanying Connellsville teams to Penn Hills games
Connellsville school police officers accompanied sports teams to games in Penn Hills in the wake of a WPIAL investigation surrounding allegations of racial slurs directed at Penn Hills soccer players during a soccer game last month, drawing concern from school officials.
Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines called the armed guards “culturally insensitive” and asked WPIAL to intervene and discourage Connellsville from continuing the practice.
Joseph Bradley, the superintendent of the Connellsville Area School District, said bringing school officers to events is standard procedure. He said that the district has long used school personnel at “appropriate away events” and he would welcome WPIAL to examine the district’s policy.
“Armed security” accompanied Connellsville teams to games at Penn Hills on at least three separate occasions over the past week, Hines wrote in a letter to district employees. She said that has never happened before in the past.
“As you are aware, Penn Hills School District also employs security, but our model is an unarmed one?” Hines wrote. “We also assign our security officers special details that include crowd supervision during various events, home and away; however, we have never experienced from the district in question prior to the WPIAL hearing on September 24 or from any other district for that matter, armed security traveling to our site, positioning themselves with their team near the bench, and providing escorts for restroom breaks and/or locker room travel.”
Hines said in a phone interview Thursday with the Tribune-Review that she is not trying to inflame the issue or cause more drama.
“In the original complaint, the kids felt verbally attacked … Nowhere have I read or what I’ve heard was there any reference that someone was going to harm somebody. Now, where is the threat? And for a volleyball game?” Hines said.
Armed officers were at Penn Hills on Saturday for a girls soccer game, on Monday during a boys soccer game, and on Tuesday during a girls volleyball game, Hines said. She said there were around 40 people at the volleyball game.
“Out of those, maybe five were students. So who’s the threat?” Hines said.
Penn Hills volleyball coach Jay Mitlo wrote a blog post about the situation. He said the team greeted Connellsville with a welcome sign and by placing bags of candy on chairs in the Penn Hills gym before the game.
“The Connellsville girls and coaches were surprised and excited,” he wrote. ” … Then, we noticed three men in attendance. Two in Connellsville blue shirts and an armed guard. The two men in shirts were with Connellsville security and the armed guard was there to protect their players and fans. Protect them from…our 40 fans, our staff, the candy?”
Mitlo told the Trib that he was unsure whether the team would travel to Connellsville next week for a scheduled game.
“The entire situation breaks my heart, that kids can’t just be kids,” he said Thursday.
The boys’ soccer game on Monday was closed to spectators.
“I don’t know where the perception of threat is coming from. What they’re doing is insensitive, and I really don’t think they realize that,” Hines said.
Bradley said the school police officers attend every home game, all play off games regardless of the site, and other games such as rivalries or where large crowds are expected.
Hines said she has reached out to the WPIAL to express concerns.
“I conveyed my hope that the WPIAL would intervene and discourage such culturally insensitive practices in the future, especially given that it is the responsibility of officials, coaches, and site managers to supervise the players during competition,” Hines wrote.
WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley said the WPIAL doesn’t oversee how schools run their event management for games. He said that responsibility falls to the involved schools, and policies of an individual school usually dictates its approach to that.
O’Malley said the two districts were directed to come up with an approach to games, and the administrations, in advance, were supposed to communicate how they would run their event management for those games.
“We’ve reached out to both, and we’ve asked for them to get back to us so that we can make a more detailed explanation of what might have taken place,” O’Malley said. “Obviously they were supposed to have agreed, in advance, to the event management procedures that were going to be followed. Let’s see what they did so that we know how we can respond.”
Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton said Connellsville Police Chief Bill Hammerle called him before the boys’ soccer game to ask him if he expected any problems. Burton said school districts will contact him if they ever anticipate problems at a game. Penn Hills School District, he said, did not contact him about perceived threats or problems.
“I told him we didn’t anticipate any problems because it was a closed game,” Burton said, referencing the fact that the boys’ soccer game was closed to spectators.
Hammerle said he did not tell Burton that Connellsville would bring armed security guards to games. But he did call him to talk about his concerns.
“I was concerned for safety for our kids. (Penn Hills) should welcome the safety,” Hammerle said.
When asked where he saw a threat, he said: “No one was … singled out in particular, just the public in general. Who knows what could happen? We’re all about safety, that is it. You see the violence happening across the country, right? Taking an extra measure for safety shouldn’t be a problem. We should be commended for it.”
Penn Hills School Board President Erin Vecchio said she does not commend the move.
“These are kids. For God’s sake, what are you going to do, shoot kids?” she said.
In his statement, Bradley said the district support of athletes is displayed in many ways including having district school police officers escort them at appropriate away events. The officers are licensed and armed both during the school day and at extracurricular events, Bradley said.
“The use of those school police officers has been done for a variety of reasons and is not unique to CASD,” he wrote. “CASD will continue to employ best practices that not only ensure our students and spectators meet our expectations of proper conduct, but also protect those same groups from harm or from false accusations.”
Penn Hills administration cancelled all athletic events against Connellsville after reports surfaced that Connellsville students, fans and players slung racial slurs at Penn Hills players during a Sept. 6 soccer game. They said they would not travel to Connellsville or host the school until the allegations were investigated and resolved by WPIAL.
WPIAL held a hearing on Sept. 24 and released the findings of their investigation on Sept. 26.
While WPIAL officials couldn’t say with certainty that slurs were used by Connellsville boys soccer players at the game, they found the testimony of the Penn Hills players credible and believed it was “likely that at least some racial slurs or racially insensitive comments were directed to a Penn Hills player or players.”
“Based on the information in the credible testimony of the Penn Hills players, there were in all probability some negative interactions in the field,” O’Malley said in September. “But it was the board’s position that they were in all probability isolated and not reflective of the Connellsville boys soccer program or their school.”
WPIAL required that Connellsville hire an outside consultant to address and train its student-athletes regarding racial and cultural sensitivities, which the district agreed to do.
Penn Hills said it would play Connellsville again following the investigation.
Bradley said the Connellsville district is saddened and disappointed that any school district employee accompanying students could be construed as culturally insensitive or inappropriate.
He said the district was “taken aback by this communication, especially in light of completing two cordial athletic events between the two schools this week with zero issues.”
“In both of those contests although competitive, it was evident that the students are trying to move forward and maintain a positive relationship between the school districts,” he wrote. “However, communications such as this are preventing that from happening.”
Bradley also said he and other Connellsville administrators were at Monday’s game, and provided “ample opportunity” for questions about the district’s use of school personnel at away events.
Ben Schmitt contributed. Madasyn Czebiniak and Dillon Carr are Tribune-Review staff writers. Contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib. Contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, email@example.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.