The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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January 16, 2013

Hermitage School District makes changes in wake of shooting

Sharon, Mercer officials review safety procedures

MERCER COUNTY — A review of Hermitage School District’s safety and security procedures has led to changes recently implemented, some planned for the future and discussions about other things that could be done.

School administrators met with city and police officials to look at school safety “through the lens of what happened in Connecticut,” said Superintendent Dr. Daniel Bell, referring to the mass shooting in an elementary school.

“We had a good, open, honest, frank discussion,” Bell told the school board Monday.

From that meeting, school officials decided to limit the morning entry point for teachers to one in each building. Before then, the buildings had been opened from 6 a.m. until students arrived with multiple entry points for teachers, Bell said.

School resource officer Anthony Moses, a full-time Hermitage police patrolman, is working an extra 30 to 45 minutes a day, with the city picking up the tab for the time being. Moses, whose office is in Hickory High School, also moves to Artman Elementary School at the end of the day to monitor children leaving school boarding buses or being picked up by their parents.

“Just for presence and to monitor things,” Police Chief Patrick B. McElhinny said of the extra time.

The change gets to something that school board member Paul H. Paoletta asked about: whether officials have talked about the possibility of an “unstable parent” causing problems.

“We have,” Bell said. “We see that as a more likely situation we’re going to encounter than what happened in Connecticut, although you can’t rule anything out.”

At the grade school level, one of the police department’s biggest concerns is the high volume of people when parents pick up their children and the custody issues that involve some of those families, McElhinny said.

The school district also has committed to installing keyless dead bolt locks on all classroom doors, which would allow someone inside the room to lock it when an emergency arises, Bell said.

The doors currently have locks that can only be locked by a key from the outside of the door, meaning only teachers can lock them and they have to leave the room to do it, Bell said.

The police department is investigating an emergency alert system that would send an alarm to Hermitage police cars, bypassing Mercer County 911 or any dispatchers, Bell said. Such a system would be activated only in a “dire, serious, emergency situation” and police would know to respond immediately to the school, he said.

Other long-term possibilities include upgrades to the entry point system. During the day, school buildings have one access point for visitors. An office staff person can see who is requesting to enter via video camera, and has to push a button to unlock a door to permit entry into the office.

Bell did not discuss what improvements could be made, only that “We feel they can be improved.”

The district held an additional lockdown drill following the Sandy Hook massacre, and the drill exposed a weakness to the district’s safety plan: getting students out of the building to flee a shooting, Bell said.

The lockdown procedure is designed to keep students in the school and prevent others from entering, but does not address fleeing the school once a threat has entered the building.

State police have new guidelines and school officials are looking into whether there is training that can be provided to teachers on fleeing a school building.

Such training would add to the number of decisions teachers must make in emergency situations, and it’s difficult to train someone how to act when there might be many variables, Bell said.

“It doesn’t lend itself to manuals,” he said.

Schools provide a unique challenge to law enforcement and school leaders because officials want them to be perceived as a center of learning open to students and parents while still being safe for students and employees, McElhinny said.

“There’s no easy answer,” Bell said. “There’s nothing foolproof about any of this.”

Hermitage schools are “very safe” and police and school officials have a “good working relationship” but officials must regularly review their safety procedures and features and guard against complacency, McElhinny said.

“There’s always some tweaking of the system that can be done,” McElhinny said.

The presence of a school resource officer has allowed for an increased exchange of information between police and school officials, the immediate investigation of thefts and any other alleged crimes, and the handling of student problems, particularly involving home life, before they become bigger issues, he said.

“A police officer in the building is ultimately the best security feature you can have in the school,” McElhinny said, adding he would welcome discussions of adding another uniformed cop to the school.

McElhinny said he has not talked to school officials about increasing police presence and the school would have to absorb the cost. Under the present agreement between the city and school district, the district pays 75 percent of the school resource officer’s salary and benefits, and the city pays the rest.

“That’s up to them,” McElhinny said of school officials. “That’s a financial decision as well as a safety one.”

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