Playing it safe: Area districts consider increasing security measures
Schools around the area are working to beef up their security as a way to keep students safe. METROGRAPHICS
As schools around the state open their doors over the next few weeks, how to best secure them is one of the hottest discussions taking place in district board rooms.
Through May, 23 school shootings had already taken place in 2018, leaving 35 people dead.
In the wake of the deadliest academic year in recent memory, school officials amped up the conversation on specific security measures.
For Lehighton Area School District, that meant hiring two police officers to rotate among its three buildings: the high school, middle school and newly constructed K-5 elementary center.
The officers, Ronald Kazakavage and Peter Salerno, will both earn $30 per hour.
“We want them to have a consistent presence in the district,” Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said. “They have full arresting powers and have to follow all the same procedures as our local police.”
At least one officer will be present during the school day, but don’t expect their work to end there.
“The flexibility would also allow us to have the officers at extracurricular activities,” Cleaver said. “At a Friday night football game for example, where we would normally use four borough officers for security, we could cut that down to two and also use our own officers.”
The officers will each work up to 120 hours per month for 10 months. Lehighton received a grant of $60,000 for the first year and $30,000 for the second year to help pay for the officers.
Adding the officers to the district payroll will increase Lehighton’s insurance package by $2,500 per year for the extra liability.
Police officers were also a consideration in Palmerton Area School District. Around $200,000 was budgeted for 2018-19 for two officers and other add-ons such as a vehicle for them.
After debate, however, the board instead turned its attention to physical building improvements. It accepted a proposal this week from the Coatesville-based Gilbertson Group for $120,000 worth of work throughout the district.
“It won’t be what everyone wants at this point, but it is a step,” board President Barry Scherer said at a workshop earlier this month.
Palmerton approved the Gilbertson Group contract without additional comment Tuesday night, and more districts may follow suit in the future. A law signed June 22 allows school officials to discuss matters related to safety behind closed doors — in executive session — if airing them publicly would be “reasonably likely to impair the effectiveness of such measures” or are likely to jeopardize the safety or security of an individual or school.
School boards have also been hearing from parents and grandparents, urging action.
Patricia Woginrich, a Palmerton resident, said her grandson will begin attending kindergarten in the district this year and supported the idea of having officers.
“It is something in this day and age we need to think about,” she said. “Nobody knows what will happen. There are ways to get grants to help pay for officers. Once something happens, then it’s too late.”
Physical building improvements may just be the start in Palmerton.
“I believe in safety and I’ll keep the pressure on,” director Earl Paules said. “We’ve been dragging our feet long enough.”
Schools with officers
Some local districts, including Northern Lehigh and Pleasant Valley, have already been using school police officers.
Northern Lehigh recently approved a three-year contract with officer Frank Gnas. The position was created in 2016 and Gnas’ duties include serving as the district’s truancy officer; writing tickets and filing citations on campus; dealing with matters such as thefts, vandalism, alcohol or narcotics on school property; bus stop issues; and custody issues.
Like many districts, Northern Lehigh is focusing on access points to its buildings.
In May, the district contracted with PA Window Tint Inc. to install safety film on the entrances of all of the school buildings at a cost of $40,832. It also purchased door hardware to secure the vestibules at Slatington Elementary School, Northern Lehigh Middle School and the district office.
All of Pleasant Valley School District’s buildings have what are referred to as “captured vestibules,” meaning visitors are allowed into a secure area before they can gain access to the rest of the school.
The district plans to work with an architect, however, to design a new entranceway for the high school and rely on a security officer rather than the secretary to screen visitors to the building.
“The high school building is tired,” Superintendent David Piperato said. “We need to move forward and find a balance between the need for security and safety of students with the need to do a complete or partial renovation in the next few years. We would like to have a state-of-the-art high school that is not just safe and secure, but that supports our education programs and goals.”
Pleasant Valley has armed security in every building and one additional officer who rotates throughout the district.
Armed officers are also a consideration in Tamaqua Area School District.
Superintendent Ray Kinder said in July that hiring four armed officers from an outside vendor would be the best option when compared to training and arming Tamaqua school district staff on a volunteer basis.
“This is not a topic we wish we had to discuss,” Kinder said. “(But) we need to find a solution that’s proactive and responsible. What we need to do is decide if we’re going to move forward or if we move to the side on this issue for further discussion.”
An armed officer was nearly a reality in Panther Valley School District after the school board voted 5-3 to approve a proposal for security services offered by Summit Hill Police Department. The two sides, however, couldn’t come to terms on who would pay for the officer, and Summit Hill voted down the proposal earlier this month.
Panther Valley Superintendent Dennis Kergick said the district applied for a $60,000 grant to help pay for the cost of a police officer or resource officer, but Summit Hill estimated salary and benefits at $123,000.
Summit Hill council authorized its chief of police to allow part-time officers to make patrols at schools while the two sides work out a solution.
Kergick said the district is working on other upgrades including installation of a new camera system at a cost of $59,000.
Paying for security
For many districts, generating ideas for security is the easier part. Paying for them is the hard part.
Each of the state’s 500 public school districts is guaranteed $25,000, according to a package of bipartisan legislation, dubbed Act 44, signed by the governor earlier this year. Then, public school districts and 300 other schools, consisting of career and technical institutes, intermediate units, charter schools and rehabilitative schools, will be able to apply for grants.
The money, however, likely won’t be available before March 2019 as legislators work out how to prioritize the grant requests.
A new committee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will review incoming applications from each district.
“There will be surveys and assessments of all the districts and schools,” Sen. Jim Brewster, a member of the Pennsylvania School and Safety Committee, said. “When we start getting some of that information, we’ll be able to better come up with a funding formula.”
For now, the $60 million is a one-time investment, but legislators are hoping for a consistent level of school safety funding in the future.
“We have to keep this going,” Brewster said. “When you catch up, someone will always be trying to beat the system. That’s why it’s important to keep this money in the budget moving forward.”
Act 44 provides for a new tip line to allow students, teachers and community residents to anonymously report unsafe, potentially harmful, dangerous, violent or criminal activities in schools. The tip line will be staffed by trained professionals who can respond to situations.
“As a commonwealth, we have a responsibility to protect our children. These steps and the additional funding will help, but unless our children understand that every life is precious, and our actions have consequences, society will continue to deal with the ramifications,” state Rep. Doyle Heffley said.