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School police officer stays in touch with Keystone Oaks students

| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 9:35 p.m.
Keystone Oks School district police officer Aaron Vanatta chats with students during a fire drill at Keystone Oaks High School.
Randy Jarosz | For The Signal Item
Keystone Oks School district police officer Aaron Vanatta chats with students during a fire drill at Keystone Oaks High School. Randy Jarosz | For The Signal Item

Aaron Vanatta is concerned about the school shooting that took place in Connecticut this month, to the point that he called it “unsettling” and “frustrating.”

But the police officer at Keystone Oaks School District also is realistic and pragmatic. Vanatta said that for the most part, schools are very safe and the children that roam the halls and attend the classes are very respectful to him, for the most part.

Still, when Vanatta heard about the Connecticut rampage, his heart stopped for a couple of moments.

“It was kind of unbelievable. When I heard it, I was hoping it was (wrong). I was hoping the number of kids was wrong. But the number of kids just kept going up. I couldn't believe the number of kids was so high,” Vanatta said.

The incident also hit Vanatta personally. He is married and he and his wife, Joey, have two daughters, Julia, 7, and Grace, 2.

“I did think about that, yes. It's very upsetting to think that there is someone out there who can do this type of thing,” he said. “Schools, like I said, are very safe ... but if someone wants to do something like this, they are going to do it. But we have to be prepared,” Vanatta said.

Vanatta, who will be 39 on Jan. 31, has been a school police officer at Keystone Oaks for four years. Since then, he has worked with administrators to integrate a multifaceted security system at the district's schools.

Keystone Oaks' outside doors are locked at all times. Doors should never be opened “for anyone at any time,” he said.

Visitors are always required to sign in. Cameras in the middle and high school buildings in Dormont are now on one integrated software system that enables Vanatta to view them on a single monitor.

Visitors are required to walk with an administrator while in a school.

As for Vanatta, he grew up in Washington, Pa., and also works as a part-time police officer for South Strabane Township.

Each shooting tragedy is a constant reminder to Vanatta to tighten the safety measures at Keystone Oaks, he said. For instance, when two people were killed at UPMC Western Psychiatric Institute in Oakland this past March, this reminded Vanatta that the students at all Keystone Oaks schools, including Aiken Elementary in Green Tree, needed to brush up on lockdown drills.

Vanatta, who carries a handgun, has trained in crisis management. He insists that with each drill, the students learn new lessons.

Jim Cromie, public relations coordinator for the district, agrees that Vanatta has become a vital part of Keystone Oaks.

“He works with the kids, eats lunch with them, talks to them, roams the halls with them, because I think he wants them to know that he is there for them. When we made the decision to hire him, we wanted someone like him. I don't think we live in fear, but we are always looking out for what might happen.”

Jeff Widmer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5810 or jwidmer@tribweb.com.

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