BLAIRSVILLE-SALTSBURG: School officials discuss student safety
January 04, 2013 11:00 AM
by JEREMY HARTLEY

BURRELL TOWNSHIP -- In the wake of the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the school board of the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District outlined its emergency preparedness plan in a public meeting Thursday evening at Blairsville High School.

Board members presented what plans are in place as well as changes that have been made to increase security within the district.

"We thought as a school board and the administration it would be a good idea to have a meeting to tell the public what the district has done and where we are at with our students and our employees," said board President B. Edward Smith.

Smith cited the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School as one of the reasons the meeting was organized.

"When I was a school kid, the three safest places you had were your house, your church and school," he said. "And today, all three are being invaded."

"(The school board) is fully committed to make our school the safest possible we can make it."

Business manager Eric Kocsis detailed recent changes to the schools in the district and how they have been made more secure. In 2009, construction began on the Saltsburg school buildings to have a secure vestibule built where individuals enter the school. Vestibules were also built into the Blairsville schools in 2010, and they ensure that visitors must now enter through the school offices and sign in before continuing.

Security cameras have also been installed in the Blairsville and Saltsburg schools. The Blairsville elementary, middle and high schools now boast 64 cameras, while the Saltsburg elementary, middle and high schools hold 48.

An identification card-swiping system for building entry was also installed in 2009, increasing building security.

"Since the 2009 construction," Kocsis said, "completed in 2011, there has been better security than there has been in the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District."

Highlights of the district's emergency preparedness plan were presented by Superintendent Tammy Whitfield.

Whitfield said the plan would be explained in general terms. No specifics were given, because once specific information is given, that leaves the plan and the school open to potential attacks.

No matter how many steps you take to harden a school, Whitfield said, there's always room for improvement. The plan is not all encompassing, but details clearly defined roles for all those involved in it, she said.

Currently, she said, plans are in place for scenarios dealing with assault, bomb/bio-terrorism, catastrophic events, abduction, fire, hazardous materials, pandemic/medical emergencies, intruder/shooter/hostage situations, bus incidents, suicide, weapons and weather events.

"As we started about three years ago to consider 'What if?'" Whitfield said. "We realized we needed more training."

Several training sessions have occurred since. In August, the state police conducted an armed intruder drill within the district.

All individuals involved in the emergency plan have also received National Incident Management System training. NIMS is an emergency management doctrine that helps coordinate emergency preparedness and response.

Basically, Whitfield said, it helps everyone to speak a common language. It unifies direction and allows for cohesive and comprehensive training, she said.

Police response time to an incident could be up to 15 minutes. During that time, control and management is up to the faculty and staff of the school. The need for all individuals to understand each other is important, she said.

Security and safety measures within the schools include security cameras, automatic external defibrillators, secure vestibules, appropriate signage, identification swipe cards, the Alert Now Notification System and comprehensive site plans.

Families in the district are familiar with the Alert Now system, which is often used to notify families of snow delays or closings. The same system can be used to alert parents in the case of an emergency at school within a timely manner.

Comprehensive site plans were made available to the police that allow them to know the school buildings inside and out. Every room is well marked with things such as numbers on the outside windows, giving police an easier way to identify locations.

"Our goal is to harden the site as much as we can," Whitfield said. "I can't honestly stand here and say to you, 'I guarantee 100 percent that nothing will ever happen.' There are no guarantees. But our goal as a school board, as administration, as a police department and as parents, is to help keep our children safe and to harden this site as much as possible."

"This isn't by any stretch a knee-jerk reaction to events that have happened recently," said Sgt. Michael Schmidt of the Pennsylvania State Police. "We've been in this process for at least two years or more."

The biggest hindrance to increasing school safety is funding, Schmidt said.

"You've got to put the life ahead of the money," he said. "(We need to) look out for what's best, not only for our students, but for our employees. Because we sure don't want anybody hurt."

It's a constant battle to keep schools safe, Schmidt said. An intruder will always look for the weakest link. There are hundreds of possibilities and not all of them can be addressed.

There are low-, mid- and high-cost safety options, but ultimately, it comes down to with what level of security is the public comfortable, he said.

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