Heightened security evident at most schools in region

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Some Western Pennsylvania school districts moved quickly to put armed police officers in their buildings in the wake of Friday's mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.

For others, the first full school day since the massacre was a day to brush up on security procedures already in place.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters visited about three dozen schools on Monday morning to gauge the extent of access to outsiders. At all but three, entry doors were locked and controlled by buzzer and intercom systems. The three included a public elementary school, a charter school and a private school, all in the city of Pittsburgh.

The Post-Gazette is not identifying the schools where reporters were able to gain entry due to security considerations. But officials of the those schools were made aware of potential security risks.

Butler Area School District took extraordinary steps to implement a plan that was passed by the school board last week, before the shootings in Newtown, Conn., to have armed officers in all 14 of its buildings.

The district over the weekend obtained an order from Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr authorizing the officers, all retired state troopers, to carry firearms in the schools, superintendent Michael Strutt said.

Some of the officers went to a shooting range Sunday to be recertified in firearms by the county sheriff's office. The presence of armed officers "will be daily from now on," he said.

Judge Doerr also granted permission to South Butler County School District to have armed officers in the schools.

Ringgold School District expects to have armed police officers at its four buildings today "to assist, especially with visitors," superintendent Karen Polkabla said.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools, with 53 schools serving 26,500 students, was among those doing some soul-searching Monday. A letter from superintendent Linda Lane was sent home with students Monday, informing parents to expect an automated phone call Monday night.

The minute-long message from Ms. Lane notified parents that guidance counselors are on-call should children wish to talk about the shooting. While the district is one of few in the Pittsburgh region with its own police force, Ms. Lane noted there is "no fail-safe method" for protecting students from every danger, but district officials were conducting a review of its procedures.

A Post-Gazette reporter was able to enter one of the district's elementary schools Monday but was watched by a security guard to make sure she entered the school's main office, as is required. "Since we were first alerted of the tragedy on Friday, the district has been doing what every adult across the country was doing -- self-reflection and reviewing what procedures and protocols are in place," said Ms. Lane's chief of staff, Lisa Fischetti. "Yet we know no system is infallible, and we are reviewing everything to make sure we account for any variability."

Several districts in Allegheny County, including Keystone Oaks, Quaker Valley, East Allegheny and Gateway, already had armed police called "school resource officers" on duty before the Connecticut shootings.

A counter plan

At least three of the region's districts -- Ringgold, Quaker Valley and Norwin -- have had staff trained in a Texas-based program that gives teachers and students options other than hiding under desks in the event of a mass shooting.

Greg Crane, president of Response Options, said more than 300 school districts nationwide have taken his training, which uses the acronym ALICE, for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.

Mr. Crane prefers evacuation to lockdown if occupants are able to flee. "If the ability is to get out, why stay? If a building is on fire we don't tell the people to stay and wait for the firemen to arrive," Mr. Crane told The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. "Why, when it's a man-made extreme danger in a building, are we telling people to stay?"

A former SWAT police officer, Mr. Crane said he developed the program after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. He said shooters are determined to kill people and that sitting in a classroom makes the victims vulnerable.

"Most schools in a very calm, orderly fire drill can evacuate the school in 90 seconds to two minutes. Maybe going out some unorthodox way like climbing out of windows it would be even quicker," he said. "That removes a heck of a lot of targets really quickly."

He said a child running away is less likely to be shot at accurately than a child sitting passively under a desk, and a shooter who is being yelled at or pelted with objects is also less likely to be able to effectively kill people, and more vulnerable to being disabled.

Ms. Polkabla said staff in all of Ringgold's buildings have had the training.

"It is a proactive plan to distract the intruder," she said.

Armed police will patrol at Ringgold schools at least until administrators can meet with the school board to formalize a response to what happened in Connecticut, Ms. Polkabla said.

Some districts added police patrols in areas around their buildings on Monday or convened meetings of safety officers to review emergency procedures, while others said they were not changing what were already meticulous procedures for ensuring the well-being of students.

"We're just as diligent today as we are every day," said Quaker Valley spokeswoman Tina Vojtko.

Avonworth School District teachers and staff have a crisis response manual and held an emergency drill last month, spokeswoman Dana Hackley said. Other than increased patrols in the area of schools by Ohio Township police, "we're not changing any of our procedures," she said.

Most schools significantly increased security and tightened access to buildings after the mass killing at Columbine, noted Keystone Oaks spokesman James Cromie. "Unfortunately, this [Connecticut] isn't the first one."

That is mostly what Post-Gazette reporters found in their canvass of schools shortly after the start of classes. The reporters were instructed to try the main entrances, and to go to the office and ask for the principal if they gained entry. They were told not to use deceit, subterfuge or force, but to determine whether the main entrance was secure.

Unlocked doors

Shortly after 9 a.m., a reporter walked through the unlocked front doors of a charter school in Pittsburgh. One door to the office was unlocked; the other was wide open. At Pittsburgh Arsenal 6-8, in Lawrenceville, cameras were trained on locked doors of the school's 40th Street entrance, and a security guard pawed through bags of people who were buzzed in. But it was a different story at another city school, where a reporter found the doors unlocked and proceeded to the school office, where staffers told her to contact the school district spokeswoman.

Security was tight in the Canon-McMillan School District. A reporter appearing at the Cecil Intermediate School's main entrance about 8:40 a.m. Monday never pushed the buzzer for entrance but quickly was asked over the intercom for identification and reason for being there. A school employee came to the door within seconds, unlocked it and asked to see identification.

In moments, school Principal Scott Chambers also came to question the reporter. He said security was heightened at the school.

Monroeville police stepped up patrols around Gateway School District facilities and school administrators planned to meet with police to review emergency plans, district spokeswoman Cara Zanella said.

An email to district families Sunday from Seneca Valley School District Superintendent Tracy Vitale promised "a heightened awareness on the part of Seneca Valley staff and local law enforcement" including increased police presence in buildings.

At the private Winchester Thurston Lower School, whose campus sits on Morewood Avenue in Shadyside, administrators tightened security procedures at the front door, the only way to get into the building after the school day starts.

At Mt. Lebanon Senior High School, entrances are closed at 8:15 a.m. and a sign directs visitors to a back entrance. Inside those doors is a receptionist who asks visitors to sign in, wear a badge and state the reason for their visit.

District spokeswoman Cissy Bowman said visitors to the district's seven elementary and two middle schools gain entrance through a buzzer system.

"They are a little different in each school," she said, adding that the shootings at Columbine "changed the entire landscape for school safety."

This story is based on the reporting of Post-Gazette staff writers Moriah Balingit, Bob Batz Jr., Mark Belko, Ed Blazina, Mackenzie Carpenter, Sharon Eberson, Dan Gigler, Sean D. Hamill, Diana Nelson Jones, Karen Kane, Kevin Kirkland, Virginia Kopas Joe, Rich Lord, Gretchen McKay, Timothy McNulty, Marylynne Pitz, Jon Schmitz, Maria Sciullo, Annie Siebert, Dave Templeton and Paula Reed Ward.

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