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Penn Hills student spearheads safety petition

| Saturday, May 2, 2009

Penn Hills High School student Alexa Verrico said Friday she has collected 300 signatures of classmates for a petition that calls for the district to improve security at the school.

Last month Penn Hills police said a loaded handgun fell out of an unidentified 17-year-old student's pocket inside the school, which is equipped with two metal detectors.

"It's a shame when you don't feel safe in the school environment," said Verrico, 17. "We need to take our school back."

Verrico plans to present the petition to the school board at its meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Students are concerned with what Verrico calls "unprofessional" behavior from security officers, whom she said often can be seen shaking hands and "chest bumping" with students.

"They're not doing their jobs," Verrico said. "They are too worried about being friends with the students."

School board member Erin Vecchio, a longtime critic of security in the district's schools, said she intends to ask the board to fire its security company, Leonard Security of Braddock Hills, and consider forming an in-school police force or hiring armed personnel.

"Our security is a joke," Vecchio said. "If this board and the administration thinks the security measures I'm proposing are too expensive, which was the excuse used in the past, then I want them to tell me what price they want to put on the safety of our children."

Superintendent Joseph Carroll said security is a "huge umbrella" that officials continue to review.

The district pays Leonard Security $320,000 a year to staff the high school and Linton Middle School with 15 unarmed security officers. Nine or 10 cover the high school, which has about 1,200 students. The district budgets an additional $15,000 for armed Penn Hills police officers it uses on occasion.

Scott Leonard, owner of Leonard Security, said it is unfair to blame the district's security problems on his company.

Leonard said surveillance video shows the student the district says brought the gun to school passing through a metal detector that fails to go off. The school district furnishes the metal detectors, Leonard said.

"Ask yourself if somebody would willingly go through a metal detector if they were carrying a gun?" he said. "There are two metal detectors at the high school, but there are lots of ways in and out of that building."

District Business Manager Richard Liberto said the district plans to install two more metal detectors. The student fled the building after the gun fell out of his pocket.

Penn Hills Police Chief Howard Burton said he expects the student to be charged with having a gun on school property and firearms violations.

Carroll said before the incident the school sent students entering the school through metal detectors on a random basis, as well as any student arriving late. Since then, he said the school has required all students to go through a metal detector before starting classes.

Students are issued ID badges, but Carroll said most students don't carry them. "It's something we've tried to put in place the last couple of years. We've had success at the elementary- and middle-school levels. The biggest factor is getting student cooperation.

"We don't have our heads in the sand," Carroll said.

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