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April 1, 2013

Schools step up drills, safety measures

NEW CASTLE — Neshannock superintendent Dr. Mary Todora’s heart grows heavier with each safety measure her district implements.

“I never, ever thought when I went into education that we’d have to take these types of measures to protect these kids,” she said, referring to increased lock-down drills and police presence in the district’s two buildings.

Like other schools in the county, and nationwide, Neshannock’s increased emphasis on security comes in response to the December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which killed 20 students and six adults.

Noting that more than seven years ago, Neshannock formed a community partnership with township and state police, medical providers and other emergency services, Todora explained the perceived threat had always been more of a Columbine-type incident with the violence coming from a student or other insider.

“Until Newtown, I don’t think we’d really been thinking about school violence from the outside,” she said, adding that lock-down drills, which had been annual for the past three or four years are now a monthly event.

Those drills, designed to keep students safe and let them know what to do in case of an emergency, have also begun or increased in frequency since December in the neighboring Mohawk, Ellwood City, Shenango, Wilmington, Laurel and Union school systems, according to superintendents in those districts.

Attempts to reach New Castle Area School District security officials were unsuccessful.

 

ACTIVE SHOOTER


While some schools across the country have upped the reality of their safety drills, utilizing mock shooters and emergency responders, local schools have not.

However, several districts, including Mohawk, Ellwood City and Laurel, have had or are planning “active shooter” trainings for faculty and all staff members including secretaries, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and bus drivers.

Although students will not be part of the drills, Mohawk and Ellwood have discussed the possibility of including them.

“There are a lot of pros and cons to be weighed. I think we are all on a higher alert status after Newtown. We’re dealing with issues we’ve never had to deal with before, but we don’t want to do anything to frighten the students,” explained Mohawk Area School District superintendent Kathleen Kwolek.

Frank Aloi, Ellwood City Area School District superintendent, added, “We first want to make sure our staff can handle situations. Teachers are the first line of defense.”

Superintendent Dr. Sandra Hennon explained that in the Laurel School District “we have been blessed to have received grants from the Center for Safe Schools for the past four years. Working together with them, we have compiled a manual for each teacher to have at their desk that provides them the basis of what to do in an emergency.”

 

ADDED SECURITY

Also charged with insuring student safety are the security guards and police officers now patrolling most Lawrence County districts.

According to Wilmington superintendent Dr. Joyce Nicksick, guards were eliminated last year, but reinstated after the Sandy Hook tragedy. They are currently in training to be armed.

Likewise, Ellwood and Shenango have both hired security officers.

“We’ve been encouraged by the response from the community to our adjustments to our safety plan,” noted Shenango superintendent Dr. Michael Schreck.

In Neshannock, township police regularly patrol the schools.

 “They are familiarizing themselves with the buildings so if there’s a problem in Room 218, they know exactly where Room 218 is,” superintendent Tordora said.

Laurel, which had unarmed security guards prior to December, partners with the Hickory Township Police Department whose officers patrol the district’s two buildings daily.

 “I think having the security presence every day shows the community we believe in safe schools,” Hennon said. “The most important thing is to assure our students and their parents that safety is our top priority.”

 

ACCESS CONTROL

 While more security personnel have been allowed into the local school systems, there has also been an increased emphasis on who needs to be kept out of the buildings.

“I think in the past things like bomb threats had been our focus, but since December we’ve all come to realize our focus should be on who has access to our buildings and our students,” explained Mohawk’s Kwolek.

Mohawk, along with Ellwood and Shenango, have recently installed computerized systems that scan visitors’ driver’s licenses to identify anyone who convicted of a crime against children.

Other districts have upgraded or modified security systems. Recent renovations at Wilmington’s junior/senior high school building included a restructured entrance and increased security cameras, moves superintendent Nicksick said were supported by parents.

“We have a shared goal, we were, are and will continue to be a safe place for our students. We will maintain a high level of security this year and every year,” Nicksick said.

 “The shock waves from Newtown even reached our little school district,” said Union superintendent Dr. Alfonso Angelucci. “But we feel we’ve addressed the areas that needed strengthened.”

Neshannock’s Todora added, “We are educators, but we must also provide for the safety of our children because when something like Sandy Hook happens, a community never recovers.”

 

 

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