Shamokin Area officials consider armed guards, metal detectors
COAL TOWNSHIP - Shamokin Area officials are researching the implementation of new security measures at district buildings in the wake of last month's school shooting in Connecticut.
The district superintendent, business manager and school board president together visited Hazleton Area on Monday to observe that district's $1 million-plus security program, and Shamokin Area principals are expected to visit Friday.
Hazleton Area uses 12 metal detectors at four district buildings, including the high school and administration building, and also uses computer software to scan all visitors' state-issued identity cards.
An approximate 30-person security staff includes three armed personnel - two district-employed school resource officers and a Pennsylvania state trooper who is stationed full-time at the high school.
Though Hazleton Area is significantly larger than Shamokin Area, such measures on a smaller scale could be on the horizon locally, and that appears a sign of the times.
"Maybe 10 years ago I'd say, 'Wow, unbelievable,' " James Zack, Shamokin Area superintendent, said of the sight of metal detectors and armed guards inside a school building. "Today, people there did not seemed fazed by it."
There are no metal detectors or armed guards at Shamokin Area. There are no unarmed, full-time security guards at the district, for that matter, Brian Persing, school board president, confirmed.
He suspects that could change.
"I envision that for the school district in the next five, six months," Persing said of the use of armed guards.
"You'd never think you'd have to go to school and have armed guards," he continued. "That goes to show where we're at."
Shamokin Area once had a school resource officer through a partnership with Coal Township Police Department. The district paid 70 percent of the officer's salary and benefits, largely bolstered by money from a federal grant program. That funding source dried up, and last January, when the school board sought to erase a deficit that at one point topped $5.6 million, a contract with Coal Township police was not renewed despite the resistance of some board members and the reluctance of others.
There are cameras and buzzer systems in place to help control access to the main entrances of all three district buildings throughout the day.
Three part-time security guards are working at the district elementary school, but their presence is associated with an ongoing renovation project and is not a standard security measure.
Hazleton Area already owned a pair of metal detectors when another 10 were purchased last summer for $3,500 each. The detectors and updated security measures came after 83 .22-caliber bullets were found in a district bathroom in April. It was later determined that the bullets were for target shooting and not for a planned assault at the school. Three students were disciplined for the incident.
District Superintendent Francis X. Antonelli said the $1 million-plus cost for security staff includes salary, benefits and any equipment used for security personnel, from two-way radios and computers to clothing.
The measures have been effective, he said. Knives and other weapons have been confiscated from students, and at least one parent - a licensed firearms carrier - triggered the security equipment upon entering a school building while carrying a gun to a student registration event in August.
That person was not perceived as a threat, according to published reports.
Despite some initial hiccups and long lines, student arrival has become a lot smoother, Antonelli said, and students feel safer.
The computer identification software, which uses a database to flag people registered on the Megan's Law list or who have been convicted of violent crime, has kept some people out of school buildings.
Antonelli said the measures as a whole have also proved to be a deterrent, and that the district is considering not only purchasing metal detectors for the remaining eight Hazleton Area schools but also at employing additional armed guards.
Hazleton Area isn't immune to the financial maladies Shamokin Area and many others across the state have faced lately, and its school board voted to raise taxes this school year.
Antonelli said the Hazleton community as a whole is largely supportive of the district's security measures regardless of cost.
"When it comes to the safety of the children, you really can't put a price tag on it," he said. "My top priority here ... is to ensure a safe and secure environment for students and staff. If you can't do that, you can't provide an atmosphere conducive to learning."
Shamokin Area is facing a $2.8 million deficit heading into 2013-14, according to Steve Curran, business manager.
Curran and Persing each said the budget process this year would be much less painful than last year, with perhaps the entirety of the deficit covered from district reserve funding.
State law restricts school boards from simply raising property taxes to a desired rate in most instances, with restrictions to either keep tax rates below inflation or put larger tax rates to public vote.
Shamokin Area's inflation index is 2.6 percent for 2013-14, meaning the most it could raise taxes would be 0.6869 mills. That would generate about $65,000 for the district, Curran said.
Persing said the district could look for federal or state grant funding for security, but Antonelli said such funding is scarce, a reflection of the economic climate nationally. Hazleton Area sought such funding last year to have a second state trooper in the district but was denied.
The security measures, Antonelli said, are largely funded with local tax dollars.
Shamokin Area's budget is said by officials to be bare bones. Spending on equipment purchases was eliminated last year and that could remain the case this year, Curran said.
Persing wonders if district taxpayers would support a referendum for a rate hike if it were for security purposes.
"I'm just wondering what the public's input is on that," he said.
The district's current property tax rate is 26.4195 mills, which means properties are taxed about $26.42 for each $1,000 of assessed value.
Zack was impressed by Hazleton Area's security program. He described the trip to Luzerne County as a "preliminary" visit, and said no decision is on the immediate horizon.
There are no plans to visit other districts, Zack said, but that's not out of the realm of possibility. He did say district administration will review Hazleton Area's measures and discuss ideas further for Shamokin Area.
Persing said he's asked Zack and Curran to prepare a packet regarding Hazleton Area's security measures for fellow board members to review. He said he'd also turn to directors Ed Griffiths and Charles Shuey for advice.
Griffiths is currently police chief of Shamokin City, and Shuey is a retired Coal Township police officer.
Both men said they'd support having armed guards in the district, and each spoke of looking into contracting with former or off-duty police officers.
"I think we're going to have to make a concerted effort to find the funding to hire some type of armed security," Shuey said.
"If we have the money, I'm all for it," said Griffiths, who added he believes the federal government will soon make more grant money available for school security in light of the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Griffiths said he supports the use of metal detectors, which he said he had proposed in the past.
Shuey isn't convinced on the use of metal detectors from a logistical sense. He did say one no-cost measure could be implemented: banning backpacks. By doing so, he said someone wishing to smuggle a weapon into a school would have one less way to do so.
The locking mechanism on new doors installed at the elementary, like the old doors, sometimes malfunction when a vacuum is created due to the HVAC system, a Shuey said, and that issue is being addressed with the contractor this week.