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Pa. mandated school safety protocols aim to protect students attending schools

  • Ivey DeJesus/PennLive
Investigators search for evidences outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers

Jae C. Hong / AP Phot

Investigators search for evidences outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Desperation turned to heart-wrenching sorrow for families of grade schoolers killed after an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself in their Texas classroom and began shooting, killing several fourth-graders and their teachers

Visitors cannot just walk into a school building in the Lower Dauphin School District.

The district has so-called capture points throughout all campuses — surveillance cameras, locked exterior doors (and interior doors) and a visitor screening system that requires individuals to scan their driver’s license to generate a pass that includes their destination.

Cumberland Valley School District also keeps all building doors locked during the school day. Visitors must enter at a central location at each building before being granted access to the hallways. Entrances have been reconfigured over the last several years to enhance safety. Staff are instructed to question and report anyone without a district-authorized identification.

These are just some of the measures school districts have put in place in recent years as they’ve faced the sobering reality that school shootings can happen anywhere.

That’s a reality that forcefully struck home in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed Tuesday by a gunman armed with an assault rifle. And it once again brought the questions of school security to the forefront in communities across the country.

Administrators say Pennsylvania schools practice rigorous security measures. In fact, school districts are mandated by law to put in place and carry out about a dozen requirements addressing school safety, notably concerning active shooter protocols.

“It’s a pretty robust process that’s codified in legislation,” said Jim Hazen, the school safety coordinator for Lower Dauphin School District.

Those mandates, enacted by the Legislature in 2018 in the wake of the Parkland, Fla. school massacre, range from annual active shooter training for students and staff to risk assessment inspections done with partners from the local law enforcement community and county emergency management teams.

These teams look for classroom doors that can’t be locked from the inside, weak visitor screening protocols and even inconsistent security measures between high schools and the lower, middle and elementary schools. These, in fact, were some of the vulnerable points that were found across the commonwealth when the Parkland shootings prompted the state to more closely examine the security of its schools.

Since then all districts are required by law to comply with the requirements set by the state.

“I think school safety is significantly better than it has been in the past,” said David E. Christopher, Cumberland Valley superintendent. “We have put a lot of things in place that have assisted in increasing the safety of school environment for students. I think our parents would tell you they feel our schools are safe, mostly safe.”

Still, the levels of security provided in school buildings can vary dramatically from one district to another – and particularly, between protocols practiced in an urban or suburban school district versus a more isolated rural district.

Philadelphia Inquirer

A State Police Patrol drives near Commerce Street in Carlisle, PA. Wednesday, March 11, 2018. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

“It depends on the area,” said Lt. Adam Reed, a spokesman for Pennsylvania State Police. “Here in Pennsylvania obviously we patrol more rural areas and we find schools that may be secluded and in more rural areas compared to more urban settings offer unique challenges. We will tailor our recommendations to what we see. A lot comes down to funding. At the end of the day, we can make security recommendations but they may not be realistic based on the school district’s financial situation.”

As part of the mandates put in place a few years ago, state police or local police departments work closely with school districts to enhance security and readiness to deal with an active shooter situation.

Risk vulnerability assessment is part of that process. Despite the mandates, vulnerabilities are still detected.

“We will remind staff not to prop open exterior doors,” Reed said. “We offer suggestions to improve lighting outside schools and parking lots or we’ll make suggestions to install additional cameras or change to a different visitor check-in procedure. We normally take a comprehensive look at everything a school has to offer.”

By Wednesday, as the sad tally of the Uvalde massacre grew, school superintendents across the region reached out to their communities to assuage concerns about the safety of their children.

Christopher reminded parents, faculty and students that the district has emergency operations protocols in place, which include emergency drills and crisis management training for staff.

Sean Simmers / PennLive

File – Cumberland Valley High School

The district in 2021 formed the Cumberland Valley School Police Department, which consists of two police officers who work in conjunction with the Hampden Township School Resource Officer and in partnerships with police in Silver Spring, Hampden, and Middlesex townships and Pennsylvania State Police.

“We have 10,000 students,” Christopher said. “We are as large as a lot of municipalities in the commonwealth. We have 12,000 to 13,000 employees. At any given time, we have 11,000 people on our campus.”

Cumberland Valley in recent years sealed off entries so that visitors enter into a vestibule and cannot gain access to the buildings or the main office without a badge or without being buzzed in by a staff member.

His district has installed the so-called “School Gate Guardian,” a visitor registration system that retrieves data from a visitor’s state-issued ID. The information is then compared with information from several state and law enforcement databases, including the registered sex offender database. It also includes a locally stored database created by the district that could include parent or guardian custody issues, restraining orders, or visitors that have been deemed a threat to students and staff.

Mark K. Leidy, superintendent of Mechanicsburg Area School District, told his school community that there is no perfect answer to the school shooting epidemic.

“(S)ometimes the incomprehensible nature of a situation just touches the soul differently,” he said. “We grieve together in that space today.”

Leidy encouraged anyone who knew of someone who needed additional assistance to reach out to school counselors, social workers or administrators.

He said Mechanicsburg remained “resolutely committed to providing schools where students can feel, and be, safe.”

“We value our partnership with you and local law enforcement to support our students and staff. We will continue to strive to ensure that every child has the opportunity to walk through our doors feeling like they belong to a learning community where they can pursue their dreams.”

Securing school buildings, though, has to be done thoughtfully. Too much of a good thing can have adverse effects.

“It’s a balance,” Hazen said. “You can’t make buildings fortresses. Parents, the community and kids won’t feel safe in an environment that is locked down to a degree for perfect safety. It’s not a school anymore. It becomes a bunker. It’s a balancing act where security meets education.”

Not long ago, the presence of police at a school — even a cruiser parked in front of a building — would have been a cause for concerns among students and teachers.

These days, it has not only become routine, but is a welcome level of added security.

Officers from Troop H, for instance, which have jurisdiction for some of the campuses within the Lower Dauphin district, physically visit district schools on an almost daily basis. At times, it may just be an officer making a short stop in the school parking lot to drink coffee or do paperwork; other times they enter the building and make their presence known to students and staff.

“At first people were like ‘Why is there a police car here?’” Hazen said. “Now people are glad to see those guys. They come into the building. They say hi to the staff and get a cup of coffee. We are definitely partners. Much more than we were 20 years ago… 10 years ago.”

One of the main challenges for school administrators remains the mental health factor – getting access to mental health support for students. Superintendents say resources are typically scarce or unavailable.

“We’ve had students identified as having mental health challenges but the wait list is so long,” Christopher said. “It is difficult to get folks in. We’ve had people call 40 providers. They can’t even get appointments.”

Demands for mental health resources have particularly spiked in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Christopher said.

“The challenge for districts is that we are taking on more mental health support,” he said. “There is not a capacity in our region. That’s a slowly growing then rapidly growing sort of problem. It was bad prior to the pandemic. Now at this point, it really is a challenge.”

Brennan Linsley / AP Photo

FILE – A family visits the memorial crosses dedicated to the the 13 people killed in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting attack, at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Littleton, Colo., Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014. There have been dozens of shootings and other attacks in U.S. schools and colleges over the years, but until the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, the number of dead tended to be in the single digits. Since then, the number of shootings that included schools and killed 10 or more people has mounted .

Some 23 years after Columbine, the first major school shooting in this country, the personal safety protocol to students has switched and remains the “run, hide, fight” guidance. Students are instructed to first run away and, if they can’t do that, hide; and at last resort, fight.

“It’s simple to remember,” Reed said. “The foundation is simple. We believe it could save lives. If you can run, do it. If you can’t, hide. Barricade yourself. In the last resort, fight. Lives may depend on it.”

Ultimately, though, no amount of precautions can guarantee safety in all situations.

“I’m never going to second guess another school distinct,” Hazen said. “In Sandy Hook the gunman shot his way into the building. You can’t keep it out. If it’s bound and determined to come in, all that stuff will deter a casual person, but someone hell-bent on evil will find a way to get in.”

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