Gone are the days when anyone could walk into a public school and wander through the hallways.
School security is a high priority in the post-Columbine era and even grandma and grandpa have to sign in at the school office.
Pennsylvania's Auditor General Jack Wagner brought attention to the issue last Thursday when he visited Pine-Richland School District to view security measures at the high school and at the state-of-the-art Eden Hall Upper Elementary School, set to open in August for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
As the commonwealth's elected fiscal watchdog, Mr. Wagner is responsible for making sure taxpayer money is spent properly. Although his office usually focuses on fiscal audits, it has added a safety checklist to its public school audits.
"A child needs to learn within a safe environment. We thought it was vitally important to add a safe schools component within audits," Mr. Wagner said at a news conference last Thursday that included officials representing Pine-Richland schools and the Northern Regional Police Department, as well as the team of auditors who have been reviewing the school.
"The audit is for us to help educate school districts ... and they help educate us," Mr. Wagner said. "We are learning from very progressive school districts like Pine-Richland."
Schools are given recommendations when the audit is completed, but funding is left to school districts. Mr. Wagner suggests the districts talk to their state legislators to request additional funding and pursue federal grants.
Pine-Richland Superintendent James Manley said upgrading the high school's security system cost about $250,000. He did not know the cost of security measures at the new Eden Hall school because they were incorporated into the bid to construct the 189,000-square-foot building.
The high school's security measures start at the front door, where visitors must be "buzzed" into the building through an intercom system and an electronic lock that is controlled at the front office. They then must check in at the office. School staff and faculty have identification cards that are read by devices at the school's locked exterior doors to allow them entrance to the building.
The school's digital camera surveillance system allows up to 16 screens to be viewed at one time, showing locations such as entrances, hallways, stairwells and parking lots.
Demonstrating the system, Assistant Principal John Pietrusinski showed how a viewer could zoom in on a location close enough to view a license plate on a vehicle.
The Northern Regional Police Department also has access to the school's video surveillance system, Chief Robert Amann said. The sophisticated system includes computers in police cars that can monitor the cameras at the school, enabling officers to assess a situation while they are en route to a call, Chief Amann said.
"We work together well," the chief said. "Our relationship with Pine-Richland School District, if not the best in the state, is one of the best."
In case of an emergency, the school district also has a rapid notification system that can make thousands of phone calls to parents in a short time, said Rachel Hathhorn, schools and community relations coordinator. The system was used to make 37,000 calls over the past academic year, including calls about attendance and community outreach announcements. About 18 percent of the calls were listed as emergencies.
Ms. Hathhorn said the system is capable of targeting calls. For instance, calls can be made to the homes of high school seniors only. Or, in the event of a bus accident, the parents of the children on that bus would be notified, she said.
Middle school Principal Kathleen Harrington said students need to feel safe when they come to school or no learning takes place. Trust is the key word, she said, and students need to know they can turn to an adult who will listen to them.
The middle school is starting a "Do the Right Thing" campaign next year, which is a team effort to build relationships between students and adults at the school.
"At Pine-Richland, we're working hard to be proactive instead of reactive," Dr. Harrington said.
Mr. Wagner said addressing safety issues begins with leadership from the school board and administration and filters down to all school employees.
"We're impressed with the sophistication all of you have here and the passion of caring about the students of Pine-Richland," he said.
A tour of the district's new Eden Hall Upper Elementary School showed what the future holds.
"This is the school of tomorrow, a 21st century school," Dr. Manley said.
Security measures include 27 wireless surveillance cameras, which are accessible by police vehicles. The front office will have the technology to electronically monitor and lock doors during a lockdown instead of having a janitor manually check each door. Other safety measures include having a separate entrance for buses to use, while parents drop off or pick up their children at another area.
For evening events when the community is using the building, security gates have been strategically placed to limit access to the school's academic areas.
Cindy Cusic Micco is a freelance writer.