From pillars and gates at the front doors to police and security guards, a committee of Indiana Area School District directors brainstormed Thursday on what steps to take to protect students and staff in the schools.
The Buildings, Grounds and Transportation Committee reviewed a list of proposed physical changes, more than $4 million worth, and debated at length whether police or security officers should be hired to patrol the district’s six schools.
Heightening security has been on the panel’s agenda since the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 26 students and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The committee isn’t empowered to make decisions and didn’t settle on any recommendations for the full school board to consider.
Following the public meeting, the committee again convened in a private executive session to discuss certain facets of security measures, saying that revealing those details could compromise the security the district is trying to establish.
The discussion of the role of police or security officers drew the audience into the discussion with the board members and administrators.
It came in a debate over the human response to any incident, which followed an hour of analysis of the structural changes that could be put in place.
Regardless of cameras, barricades and solid doors with no glass windows, senior high school teacher Mark Zilinskas said an intruder intent on getting into a school would not be deterred.
“Unless you make it like a fortress, like the White House, if someone wants to get in, they’re getting in,” Zilinskas said.
“At some point we have to depend on law enforcement response, and how we slow down the bad actor long enough to allow law enforcement officers to arrive,” said committee chairman Walter Schroth.
Zilinskas said that despite any policy requiring the staff to take shelter in the event of a violent attack, he believed he would not be the only teacher who would try to protect those in danger.
“If I heard kids screaming in the hall, I don’t think I could stay behind that door. I’m going out.”
And he said he believes other teachers would do the same, even knowing they may not be able to stop an intruder.
“These things are stopped by people who are trained and equipped,” Zilinskas said.
Board President Tom Harley said protection shouldn’t be the school district’s responsibility, and that the police on duty at any given moment in the Indiana area could respond to a report of an intruder in a school in less than one minute.
“The problem with being equipped and trained … is being in place,” Harley said. “How can we slow down someone? … For all of our buildings we could create a new police force, but that is not sustainable. We have 100 police officers in our community. I don’t know when it became the school district’s responsibility to provide police protection.”
District resident Brad Shields, an Indiana County detective and retired state police officer, disputed the idea that any police officers, whether from Indiana Borough, the state police or Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus, could respond so quickly. Officers have their hands tied with transporting defendants, court appearances and handling other urgent business.
“The response time could be 10 minutes,” Shields said. “Eighty percent of police time is obligated. A police budget is not filled with fluff.
“You need to decide, do you want police or do you want security? They are not interchangeable. Police are not in the security business. What you’re looking for is security,” Shields said.
“We have to determine what we want, and there’s a difference in cost to consider,” said acting district Superintendent Dale Kirsch. “We need to find out legally what we are allowed to do.”
Kirsch said he doesn’t favor arming the faculty and staff, but that the administration has to decide “what we can do to protect ourselves.”
District resident Michael Nowak urged the board to think of how an intruder would respond to certain security features.
“Create the perception of the inability to get in,” Nowak said. “Sometimes the best solution is not the most expensive one. It could be just having a pair of eyes in the office at the entrance.”
Nowak also suggested installing windows with antiballistic film. A bullet could go through, but the glass wouldn’t shatter and allow an intruder to get in, he said.
Hardening the main entrances to all six district buildings was the first measure on the list of possible physical improvements. That alone could run as much as $1 million, Kirsch said.
He said the district’s buildings and grounds coordinator, Greg Trout, has informally shopped around for quotes and estimates from contractors, and the figures don’t represent bids or actual costs.
Many of the suggested features would quickly be cut from the list because of costs, Harley said.
School officials also said that while some of the improvements were put on the list only because security has become a priority issue, other measures are under consideration in the natural course of replacing old or worn equipment.
“It’s a laundry list,” Kirsch said. “The questions are what’s realistic, what’s effective, and what doesn’t make a school look like a prison.”
Among the proposals:
n Reconfiguring the entrance at East Pike Elementary School, where the office is set back some distance from the front doors. The estimate is $1 million.
“That has been an issue for the teachers,” said Patrick McKee, a member of the East Pike faculty. “People can get in and there are many different ways — they could cut through to the right through the cafeteria, they could go through the gym, they could go around the pond. With the surveillance we have, once they’re buzzed into the building, they are out of view. And if they don’t go straight to the office, the people in the office really can’t tell.”
n Pillars to prevent vehicles from crashing through the doors — not an issue at Indiana Area Junior High School, but a concern at others.
n An elevator directly connecting the entrance with the office in Horace Mann Elementary School.
n Interior gates to isolate movement of people inside the schools.
n Replacing the aging interior doors with solid doors and locks inside and outside, estimated at $550,000.
n Phone systems linking the office with every classroom in each building, and upgrading the public address systems that could be heard outside the schools, for a combined estimated cost of $180,000.
n Replacing ground level windows, estimated at $1 million.
n A “laundry list” of signs, to warn of surveillance systems and advise visitors that their vehicles could be searched, for example.
n Video surveillance systems, estimated at $100,000.
n Roof security improvements, such as pruning trees adjacent to the buildings.
n Bolstering exterior doors other than the main entrances, possibly installing magnetic card lock systems, at a combined possible cost of $430,000.
n Additional fences, perimeter lighting, main entrance gates, ballistic glass panels and metal detectors.
No estimates were provided for those features, but a metal detection system like the one in place inside the Indiana County Court House would mean added manpower costs, Kirsch said, “and we’re not sure we’re ready to go to this point.”
In addition to considering police or security officers, the list of staff enhancements calls for evaluating the role of current security workers, forming crisis response teams, and improving psychological services to monitor, if possible, faculty and students with mental health issues.
The panel also reviewed a list of suggested policy and procedure issues, including a review of crisis management plans and the incident command system.
A districtwide review of drills is scheduled this year, and a plan for “reverse evacuation” is being suggested.
Kirsch said he is recommending a districtwide policy of refusing admittance to anyone without prior notification.
Other possible policies would prevent exterior doors from being left open or unlocked, address bomb threats or fire alarms, prohibit students from being dropped off at schools before they are open in the morning, put limits on backpacks, require a daily security sweep of all district properties, establish delivery logs, set up an independent security assessment and coordinate response plans with area police and Indiana County Emergency Management Agency.