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Safety & Discipline

Police, resource officers spearhead security at Alle-Kiski Valley schools

Matthew Medsger
| Sunday, March 11, 2018, 12:18 a.m.
Metrocreative

In the wake of the Valentine's Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead and as many injured, questions have arisen across the Alle-Kiski Valley on how schools here are working to prevent similar tragedies.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education operates the Office of Safe Schools that, according to the program's website, “coordinates school safety and security programs, collection of the annual school violence statistics, coordination of antiviolence efforts, and development of policies and strategies to combat school violence.”

That program includes a pair of grant sources that allow schools to seek funding for security equipment and personnel.

A number of districts in the Valley have used those grant sources to hire police officers, pay for the use of a local police department's resources or contract with security agencies.

Apollo-Ridge School District, which canceled classes Monday in response to a threat made on social media, has partnered with the Kiski Township Police Department for its on-site security needs since 2012.

According to Superintendent Matt Curci, the district has been able to pay for the presence of a patrol officer in its schools through the state's grant programs.

“We have been blessed that these have been covered almost completely, if not fully funded,” he said.

Curci said the benefits of having an officer on site are many, but that notably the officer serves in an additional education role.

“The school resource officer will work in cooperation with our administration and staff to educate students on topics related to their safety and well-being, which may include the dangers of drugs and alcohol, dangers associated with social media and laws related to harassment and bullying,” he said.

Curci said the school doesn't employ metal detectors, like some districts do, but its focus on student safety is paramount.

“This is an ongoing focus and one that, no matter the level of satisfaction with your plans or resources, we always must look at ways to improve,” he said.

An unidentified 12-year-old boy was arrested Wed­nesday in connection with the threats that closed Apollo-Ridge on Monday.

Leechburg Area School District, which on Thursday also had to cancel classes in response to a non-specific threat against the district, employs a pair of retired state troopers as school resource officers.

Superintendent Tiffany Nix said those officers are only part of a broader security program that includes metal detectors at all buildings and bag checks for students. Guests to the building are also checked with metal detecting wands, she said.

Nix said the district is in the last year of its grant funding for school officers and equipment, but that the program will not suffer if that funding isn't renewed.

“In my opinion, safety of our students and staff is priceless,” she said.

Plans for security measures are in place as part of a broader construction project that is in progress in the district.

“During our construction project, we will be adding bulletproof glass and adding additional safety measures to our office entrances where guests enter. We will also be reducing the number of doors that students are permitted to exit at the end of each day,” Nix said.

The threat that closed Leechburg Area schools on Thursday resulted in an arrest late that night.

At Highlands High School, Superintendent Michael Bjalobok said the district uses a mix of security guards and district-employed police officers. The two police officers, Bjalobok said, split their time between the high school and middle school but have the ability to rove as needed using a district police car. Those officers and other local police prevent problems before they arise, Bjalobok said.

“We believe the police do reduce violence in the schools,” he said. “Our district police officers and school district security have a tremendous partnership with the local police departments. The local police constantly patrol our school grounds and check on the schools to create a positive relationship with the staff and students.”

The middle and high schools have metal detectors in the entrances, and all of the schools employ an electronic access system that requires visitors to be buzzed into a building.

Still, the quest for any possible improvement to security is on-going, Bjalobok said.

“(We) recently utilized Corporate Security and Investigation CSI to conduct vulnerability assessments of schools. They will ultimately provide analysis of all buildings to our security team,” Bjalobok said.

Burrell High School utilizes the services of the Lower Burrell Police Department to secure its buildings, Superintendent Shannon Wagner said.

“We have a school resource officer in the district, who is also a member of the Lower Burrell police. Additionally, the officers on duty stop and walk through our buildings on a daily basis,” she said.

The officer costs the district about $78,000 a year, a bill that Wagner said was supplemented by the police department and, in past years, through grant funding.

“We were not successful in securing any grants for 2017-18 (but) will continue to pursue future grants,” she said.

The district employs metal detectors at the middle and high schools and trains its staff alongside the police department.

“The Lower Burrell Police Department regularly trains our staff in safety procedures and protocols. Additionally, they use our facilities for training. Chief (Tim) Weitzel is clear that the schools and our kids are his number one priority,” she said.

How the money works

For the 2017-18 school year, the state offered schools and municipalities more than $6 million in grants for use in securing their schools.

Just under $4 million is to be used to pay for the training and salary of school police officers. The other $2 million is directed toward security programs and equipment.

Districts are eligible for a maximum individual grant of $60,000 for a municipally employed officer, $40,000 for a district-employed officer and up to $20,000 for equipment.

Districts may only apply for funding to cover officers' training and salary every other year, according to the program website.

More to come?

State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, announced Friday a proposed bill in the state Legislature that would place an armed security guard at all school buildings that conduct classroom instruction.

Brewster said his plan to add armed security to each school building is part of a variety of school safety ideas considered by a proposed statewide school security panel.

Brewster called for the creation of the panel to examine school security ideas and present recommendations for safety upgrades.

Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675, mmedsger@tribweb.com or via Twitter @matthew_medsger.

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