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Western Pa. school districts implement more ways to maintain students' safety

| Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015, 11:17 p.m.
Tammy Singer of Liberty hands a driver's license to South Allegheny guidance secretary Wendy Horne upon entering the  high school. The secretary scans the license, then gives it back to the visitor.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
Tammy Singer of Liberty hands a driver's license to South Allegheny guidance secretary Wendy Horne upon entering the high school. The secretary scans the license, then gives it back to the visitor.

Visitors to Steel Valley schools during class hours should be ready to surrender their driver's license or identification card to security personnel if they expect to get inside.

The procedure was instituted at all district schools this year on the advice of police.

“This is a recommendation from our school resource officer,” Steel Valley Superintendent Ed Wehrer said. “We are exchanging your identification for a visitors badge when you are in the building.”

Wehrer describes it as a proactive security measure but would not publicly release documentation describing the practice.

“It's a written procedure that we are using in our buildings this year,” Wehrer said.

When asked for a copy of the policy, Wehrer said, “We did not develop that with outside folks in mind. It was just for our own internal use between building administration and our security folks so I'm not going to share that ... with anybody in the public realm.”

Most local districts require that visitors identify themselves to school security or employees when they arrive at the entrance and again once they are inside.

Many local districts have adopted the Raptor security system that allows the school to scan the driver's license or state identification card of a visitor and produce an adhesive badge that visitors wear while in the building.

Districts that have this system said the identification card is returned to the visitor after the card is scanned.

South Allegheny spokeswoman Laura Thomson said the district began using the Raptor system to ensure visitors aren't Megan's Law offenders or other security risks. She said the district purchased hardware systems for its three buildings at a cost of $5,217 and pays an annual fee of $1,500 for the service.

“We haven't had any problems with it. It's just part of the routine now. Ninety-nine percent of the people have some sort of ID on them. We're strict about that. Everybody gets scanned,” Thomson said.

Regarding the practice of asking visitors to relinquish their identification cards, Thomson said, “That would be an easy thing to forget on the way out.”

In West Mifflin Area School District, Superintendent Daniel Castagna said the idea of holding licenses and identification cards “has been tossed around” but never followed up on. Castagna said that is largely out of concern that licenses could be lost or misplaced during a shift change or other circumstances.

“I don't want security guards being responsible for anyone's personal items,” he said.

West Jefferson Hills Superintendent Michael Panza said there could be reasons for holding cards — “Maybe to make sure (the visitor) comes back through the office” — but his district doesn't do it.

Panza said the policy has been to have visitors sign in but the district soon will move to the Raptor system.

Wehrer said his district's school resource officer Dan Boehme of Munhall police introduced the idea of holding ID cards based on recommendations the district received from the Pennsylvania State Police after an assessment of the district's security needs last year.

Boehme could not be reached for comment.

The measure to hold ID cards never went before the school board.

Wehrer, who approved it, said it didn't need board review or approval because it doesn't require a change to school board policy.

“I think it's something people will adjust to,” Wehrer said of the new policy. “I think it shows how paramount safety is to the district.” He noted Steel Valley was one of the first districts to install metal detectors at its high school and initiate searches before public events. There was negative public perception when the measures were introduced, he said, but people have gotten used to them.

Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Trooper Adam Reed said the department has a team of specially trained troopers who visit schools' stadiums, hospitals and other institutions to perform security and risk assessments.

Reed would not discuss any of the suggestions made to Steel Valley but said it is possible the ID card measure could have been included on the list of recommendations.

“Each one is done on a case-by-case basis,” Reed said of the assessments.

Steel Valley school board president Donna Kiefer said she supports the measure.

“To me, handing over a card, is that not easier than having someone coming in and shooting our kids?” asked Kiefer. She said holding an identification card ensures that visitors return to the security station and don't stay in the school.

Kiefer didn't take issue with the superintendent approving the practice without it coming before the school board.

“We trust our superintendent to make those decisions,” Kiefer said. “You have to trust law enforcement to know what they're talking about.”

In addition to having a school resource officer, the district contracts security services through State Security & Investigation Services. The company bills itself on its website as a licensed private security and investigation agency authorized to operate in Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

Wehrer said visitors' ID cards will be held safely and information on them will not be mishandled.

“I think there is a reasonable expectation your ID is not going to be used or stolen,” he said. “People's information will be secure.”

Craig Yetter of PennDOT's driver and vehicle services department said there is nothing to prevent a school district from asking to hold someone's state ID.

“That's a decision that's on the part of the person with the driver's license or ID card,” said Yetter. “If you want to surrender your driver's license when you want to enter, that's up to you.”

State education agencies say setting policy for school visitors is a matter left up to local districts.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokeswoman Jessica Hickernell said of the Steel Valley policy, “It sounds like it's an administrative policy to make sure people who go into schools come out.”

Hickernell said the state doesn't have any data to indicate how many districts may have similar policies.

Steve Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that organization recommends having visitors sign in, but doesn't provide details on how they should do that.

“We don't have an opinion one way or the other as to whether or not schools should do that. That's basically left up to the local decision-making process,” said Robinson.

Benjamin Fernandez, a member of the National Association of School Psychologists' school safety and crisis response committee, said he's heard of a couple school districts nationally taking the ID cards from visitors and hasn't heard of any public backlash from the practice.

Fernandez said more schools are moving to scanning identification cards but added the cost of such systems could affect a district's ability to use them.

“Even with Raptor, some parents argue the scanning of IDs is an invasion of privacy,” said Fernandez.

Fernandez, lead psychologist for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, said there was negative reaction when his district introduced a buzzer system at school doors years ago.

He said it took some time but the buzzers don't bother people anymore. Fernandez said the 77,000-student district does not have metal detectors.

“You have to ask what is most important in terms of security,” said Fernandez, adding the answer can be different in every school.

Schools should consider whether a safety measure will improve physical safety while considering how it impacts psychological safety, said Fernandez.

“If the school climate turns prison-like,” he asked, “what kind of collaborative relationships are you going to have there?”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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