New Castle News

December 18, 2012

Shooting Aftermath: Local school districts gear up for crisis plan reviews

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Lawrence County’s district attorney is planning a school safety summit of sorts after the first of the year.

Joshua Lamancusa said he will meet with district officials, security guards and police to determine what security measures are in place at local schools and what can be done to enhance them.

“We want to address security within each school and what the response will be to any emergency,” he said.

Jan. 10 is the tentative date for the gathering, expected to be at New Castle High School.

This review is in response to Friday’s rampage by a 20-year-old gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“I’ve spent 33 years in education,” said Dr. Mary Todora, Neshannock’s superintendent, “I never thought we’d see anything like this.”



ASSESSING SECURITY

George Gabriel, New Castle’s superintendent, spent his first day back from sick leave Monday meeting with city police and administrators to assess the district’s security and how it can be improved.

“The New Castle police department has volunteered to assist us to assess lockdown plans of each building,” he said. “Now that we’ve seen what can happen, we’re looking at everything.”

He added that when the schools were built, “we considered education, not constructing forts and fortresses, building in ways to barricade if we came under attack. By design there are hazards, but we will address that. We will be making changes.”

Gabriel said he already has some ideas.

“Parents may not like this, but I plan to minimize the number of unnecessary visits in and out of the buildings and establish a more arduous screening policy.”



POLICE PROTECTION

Students at New Castle High School also will see an increased police presence. The school already has a metal detector, video surveillance cameras, several security guards and one armed, uniformed, full-time police officer employed by the district.

“There is security at the high school, but there may be more soon,” New Castle Police Chief Bobby Salem said.

The district employs security guards at the high school, he noted. A guard at George Washington Intermediate School — housing grades four, five and six — sits at the front door and buzzes in anyone who has business there.

However, Salem said, at the city’s three primary centers — John F. Kennedy, Thaddeus Stevens and Harry W. Lockley — visitors are buzzed in but there are no guards.

“That could change,” Salem said. “Up until now, since Columbine ... we thought if we had an incident, it would most likely occur at the high school. After Friday, we’re not sure of anything any more.”

In 1999, two high school seniors in Colorado murdered a dozen students and a teacher at Columbine High School before committing suicide.

Salem noted Friday’s shootings played no part in a training exercise at New Castle High that afternoon. The session, which had been scheduled weeks in advance, was for K-9 officers.

“Since Columbine, we have training sessions all the time. They help us to get to know the school buildings.”



BEING PREPARED

Kathleen Kwolek, Mohawk superintendent, prepared for Monday morning’s classes by contacting parents Friday.

“I asked them to give the shootings a low profile, not to dwell on it and not to let the kids, especially the very young ones, watch the news,” she said. “But I told teachers if it comes up, allow the discussion.”

Kwolek said she posted advice on Mohawk’s website from the National Association of School Psychologists — tips for parents to talk to their children about violence.

As for herself, Kwolek is reviewing the district’s crisis plan.

“You ask, Have we done all we can?”

The district has one armed security guard, but will have a second soon.

“It seems like the way to go, we have two buildings.”

She added massive renovations over the past few years resulted in improved security. Doors are always locked, security cameras were installed at the high school and now the elementary.

Dr. Alfonso Angelucci spent Monday morning with his staff, reviewing protocols of the district’s crisis management handbook, which was updated last year.

“We asked what will work? What needs to be enhanced?” he said. After a safety team meeting, he continued, “we’ll go to the school board with recommendations for improvements that we believe must be made.”

A recommendation he does not expect to make is to arm the district’s security guards.

“We’re doing fine as we are,” he said. “I don’t want to make the guard a target if someone knows he has a gun and gets the idea to take it.”

He also said he did not discourage teachers from discussing Friday’s shooting with students.

“I told them talk if the subject comes up but don’t allow it to disrupt the instructional environment,” he said. “Don’t dwell on it so it becomes a distraction.

“A lot has changed since Columbine, since 911,” Angelucci said. “A lot of things are commonplace now that I never would have considered.”



WHAT IS WORKING

Like superintendents elsewhere, Todora spent Monday morning meeting with her crisis team.

“We looked at what we are doing, what is working, what we need to do.”

For the past three or four years, she said, the district had one armed security guard. Now all of the guards will carry weapons.

“We’re concerned that if someone comes in, we have no way to defend ourselves.”

She said the district followed Act 235 regarding armed guards on school property. “Our guards are all retired police officers who have handled life-threatening situations. It’s good to have them here. I feel safe in the school.”

Todora said she notified parents through the district’s messenger system to assure them there is an emergency plan in place and has had good response from local and state police when anything has happened.

“We don’t know that we’ll ever need the plan, but we believe that we are prepared.”

The superintendent said she has been called over-protective, “but I can’t believe you can be too cautious. If what we have in place prevents even one kid from getting hurt, it is worth our efforts.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)