Mount Carmel Area staff, students pleased with officer's presence
By Mark Gilger
MOUNT CARMEL - Mount Carmel Township Patrolman Brian Carnuccio not only provides security in Mount Carmel Area School District, but also serves as a counselor, educator and confidant to students in his role as school resource officer (SRO).
When he's not monitoring the hallways or cafeteria at the junior-senior high school, Carnuccio can be seen talking to students in his small office next to the Richard Beierschmitt Auditorium, conferring with district administrators about discipline and other issues, or providing security at school events. Of course, there's paperwork, too.
Having an SRO provides a piece of mind at a time when the nation is debating school security in the wake of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Conn. Carnuccio believes an SRO is the right approach for such difficult times.
"It's very sad in today's society that security is needed at all schools, but that's reality," he said during an interview at Mount Carmel Area Monday.
Carnuccio said he's more than a security guard, and believes the school doesn't have to arm its teachers or administrators.
"Security officers do a good job, but they aren't trained to handle certain incidents like police," he said, noting he is trained to handle "active-shooter" incidents and other emergencies involving lives being threatened.
As for arming educators, "They shouldn't need to take on that responsibility even if they get the proper training," said Carnuccio, who carries a handgun and other police equipment. "They are educators and administrators, not police officers."
Fortunately, the officer has never had to use his gun on school property while making criminal arrests or filing citations against students over the years.
Members of Mount Carmel Area School Board voted shortly after the Newtown incident to retain Carnuccio on a month-to-month basis despite the loss of state grant money to fund the position.
Students and staff seemed pleased with that decision.
Cost is split
Funding for an SRO the last three years came from the school district and a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, said Mount Carmel Township Police Chief Brian Hollenbush. In 2010, the commission paid 75 percent of the officer's salary, with the school district picking up the remaining 25 percent. In 2011, the officer's salary was split evenly between the district and commission. And in 2012, the district was responsible for paying 75 percent of the salary while the commission paid 25 percent.
With the grant expiring Dec. 31, just two weeks after Newtown, Hollenbush urged the board to find a way to continue funding the position. An agreement was reached in which the district will pay $23,543.73 from January to the beginning of June for the SRO, if he's retained for that entire time, while the township will pay $18,053.48 during the summer months toward Carnuccio's $41,600 salary.
Hollenbush said an SRO position initially was funded through a Cops in School grant in 1997. From 2000 to 2003, he said two township officers - one at the high school and one at the elementary school - were assigned to the district. Hollenbush, who was a corporal at the time, served as the district's SRO from 2003 to 2009.
Carnuccio, a 1999 graduate of Shamokin Area High School, earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Luzerne County Community College before graduating from Lackawanna College Police Academy in Hazleton in 2003. He began his career with Kulpmont Police Department in 2003 and has served as a full-time officer with Mount Carmel Township for five years.
Serving as Mount Carmel Area's SRO since January 2009, Carnuccio works from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. He leaves the district campus only if he's summoned to assist with a police-related emergency.
"I have various duties as the SRO," Carnuccio said. "My day starts out by monitoring the halls and making sure the students are well behaved before the first class begins at 7:52 a.m." He then meets with Superintendent Bernie Stellar, high school principal and curriculum coordinator Lisa Varano and junior high school principal and athletic director Greg Sacavage to discuss security, disciplinary matters and other issues.
Carnuccio said he spends about 90 percent of his time at the high school because there are more issues to deal with at that level, but if he's requested by elementary school principal Susan Nestico for anything, he quickly responds. He monitors elementary school hallways on occasion and talks to students and teachers about any concerns.
Carnuccio also conducts educational classes at both the high school and elementary level dealing with the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse, seat belt safety, bullying and sexual harassment.
In addition to patrolling hallways before, during and after classes, Carnuccio monitors lunch periods in the high school cafeteria until shortly before 1 p.m. He then returns to his office to meet with students who are encountering problems or are seeking someone to talk with. He further monitors activity as school leaves out at 2:20 p.m.
"Students come to talk with me about anything," Carnuccio said. "They know I have an open-door policy. I enjoy being around kids."
He also coaches track and field, so he gets to know what problems students are having in and out of school.
"I try to build a trusting relationship with the students and most of the kids view me as a positive force in the school rather than thinking cops are bad guys," he said.
Carnuccio believes his presence alone has helped the school from within, acting as a deterrent to bad behavior. Students and administrators seem to agree.
"I try to educate the students on the right way to conduct themselves," the officer said.
He believes the amount of incidents including fights, tobacco, drug and alcohol possession, bullying and sexual harassment has decreased since he became a full-time SRO.
"The kids know the district has a 'no-tolerance' policy when it comes to getting caught with tobacco, drugs or alcohol on school grounds," he said. "In addition to being suspended, the kids are cited by me and must pay fines and costs for their actions. I think that makes students think twice about committing the same infractions."
Varano said Carnuccio has built a good rapport with students during the past few years.
"Many incidents are prevented because of Brian's interaction with the students," she said. "His presence is invaluable, and I believe the school board has made a commitment to safety by keeping him here."
Varano said having a school resource officer at both schools would be ideal, but she realizes funding to employ two officers is not available. She agrees with Carnuccio that arming teachers is not the answer to improved security.
Two high school students interviewed about school safety said Carnuccio's presence is definitely needed and has played a major role in reducing the amount of incidents in the building.
"He has the proper training to do the job and that makes you feel a lot safer," said senior Nicole Purcell, 17, a daughter of Ken and Tara Purcell, Kulpmont. "I think Mr. Carnuccio has had a positive impact on our school and I believe there should be more training provided to students and teachers in dealing with emergency situations like the tragedy in Connecticut."
Senior Eric Joraskie also praised Carnuccio, and believes one well-trained school resource officer is adequate for the district.
"I think we are well protected here," said Joraskie, 19, a son of Bill and Nancy Joraskie, Mount Carmel. "Officer Carnuccio has done a great job and is really easy to talk to about anything. His presence has definitely been a deterrent.
"The kids understand the repercussions of their actions," he continued. "There haven't been too many incidents and the behavior has definitely improved by having him here."
High school social studies teacher Robert Scicchitano said as long as Carnuccio is present, "I don't see a need to arm anybody else."
He said parents can rest easier knowing there is a full-time officer at the school.
Scicchitano, in his 11th year of teaching, and who also serves as a varsity assistant football coach, said Carnuccio does a lot of "preventive maintenance."
"Brian enforces the rules and doesn't play favorites," he said. "He influences the kids in a positive manner and also educates them on the consequences they face if they don't follow the rules."
Scicchitano believes not having a school resource officer would be a serious mistake. "It's a shame, but the reality is the position comes down to funding," he said. "I'm glad the board decided to keep him on a month-to-month basis."
Steve Lapotsky, a retired social studies teacher who served 34 years in the district, is currently a hall monitor/mentor at the high school. The Kulpmont resident believes having at least one administrator properly trained in the use of firearms would help the district. As for teachers being armed, Lapotsky said that opportunity should be afforded to them on a "volunteer" basis.
"It's important to remember, though, that teachers teach and administrators administer," he said. "That's their primary responsibilities."
Keeping an SRO
Lapotsky believes Carnuccio has been a "big plus" for the district.
"Nothing is full-proof, but his position has increased the unlikelihood of unfortunate incidents occurring in the district," he said.
Donna James, school board president, believes it's important to retain the SRO.
"As a parent and school board member, I see both the safety and cost perspective involved in retaining the position," she said. "I think Brian has done a good job, and it's important to have an authoritative figure like him in the school."