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North Allegheny hires police officers to patrol 2 schools next year

Tony LaRussa
| Thursday, April 26, 2018, 10:48 a.m.

The North Allegheny School District could have a full-time police officer stationed in its intermediate and high school buildings by the end of the school year.

The school board recently voted unanimously to approve spending up to $225,000 to launch a school resource officer program using officers from the McCandless Police Department.

“North Allegheny is continuously evaluating its comprehensive safety plan to ensure best practices are in place,” said district spokeswoman Emily Shaffer. “Given the size of our district, we felt it was an appropriate time to incorporate SROs into the safety and security measures.”

With more than 8,400 students, North Allegheny is the largest suburban school district in Allegheny County.

The measure calls for the officers to be in the buildings at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. But they could be on the job by the end of this school year if McCandless council approves the program and interviews to fill the positions are conducted in time, district officials said.

The next step will be hammering out specific details of an agreement between the district and McCandless on the how the program will function, Shaffer said.

Parent Karen Rusnica of McCandless lobbied the board to place officers in all 12 of the district's school buildings.

She said the practice of having armed security officers in places such as ball parks, airports and other public buildings should be extended to schools.

“Our children deserve the added security measure of armed officers while they are at school,” she said. “Just because these are young children doesn't mean acts of violence couldn't be carried out in these schools.”Rusnica said police officers serve as “a natural deterrent to those who would cause harm.”

Younger children also could benefit from the presence of a trained safety professional able to counsel them on things such as the dangers of drinking and driving, the consequences of using social media, she said.

Board President Kevin Mahler said the district might consider expanding the program in the future.

“It makes sense, from my perspective, to get officers in these two buildings, see how it goes, and then decide in the future if there is merit to doing more.”

Noah Fenton, a senior who serves as a student representative on the school board, said there is general consensus among students that the SRO program will improve safety.

While students differ on how to handle school safety, he said “one thing that was consistent is that a school resource officer is a good idea.”

In addition to having an armed officer in the buildings to respond to critical incidents, officers will counsel students, provide leadership to the school safety committee, and work to build relationships with students and staff to help improve building security.

In response to concerns raised by some parents that the behaviors exhibited by children with special needs might be misconstrued by officers as threats, Mahler said those issues will continue to be explored.

“I understand the concerns,” he said. “But I think what's important is to get the right people in place.”

Once the program is launched the district will meet with parents to ensure that the training officers receive addresses the concerns they have raised.

While officers will refer most disciplinary actions to the school district, they will intervene directly in incidents involving, among other things, weapons, assaults and drug possession.

The district said officers also will perform some of the services previously provided by an outside security contractor such as training staff and students, conducting vulnerability checks and providing suggestions for how security can be improved.

The officers selected for the positions will operate under training outlined by the National Association of School Resource Officers, which includes topics such as:

• Understanding Special Needs Students

• Diversity

• Social media

• School law

• The SRO as an informal counselor/mentor

• Understanding the teen brain

• Sex trafficking of youth

• Preventing violence in schools

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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