Backlog grows on school safety inspections by state police
Many schools, including several in Western Pennsylvania, decided not to wait for months or years for the state police to inspect entrances, exits, locks, radios and safety plans
by Aaron Aupperlee
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH — School may be out for the summer, but not for the Pennsylvania State Police.
About 250 buildings, including many schools, across the state await state police safety inspections, a backlog that spiked dramatically since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Many schools, including several in Western Pennsylvania, decided not to wait for months or years for the state police to inspect entrances, exits, locks, radios and safety plans.
"When it comes to school safety, you don't want to sit and wait for a year," said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center. "The last thing that I would want to say, as a school administrator, to students would be, 'You know, when it comes to school safety, you're going to have to wait another year.' "
The state police offer Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Team inspections free of charge to schools, colleges, universities, stadiums, parks, businesses and other public and private facilities. They are not required, said Sgt. Carl Veach, the head of the team.
During an assessment, troopers suggest ways to enhance security, such as cameras or security doors. The team submits a confidential report to the district, Veach said.
Some changes seem small but could make a difference in an emergency, said Butler Area Superintendent Mike Strutt, whose schools received an assessment two years ago. The state police recommended the district number classrooms, entrances and exits to help direct emergency responders.
More requests for security assessments occurred as retirements and transfers whittled the team to one person, a report from the state police indicated. State police filled two vacancies on the team and added a fourth member, Veach said.
Police would not say when the vacancies occurred or were filled. General low staffing across the agency slowed the progress, Trooper Adam Reed, an agency spokesman, wrote in an email.
Stephens, whose National School Safety Center provides security assessments at a cost to schools, called the state's free program wonderful. But he questioned whether the state police can provide timely, quality inspections.
"Timely is key," Stephens said. "If they need some help on doing this, let's get the Pennsylvania Legislature to provide some additional support."
Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, questioned state police Commissioner Frank Noonan about the backlog during a February budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Noonan told the committee that the agency will assign more staff to the assessments.
The state police team assessed Pittsburgh Public Schools on May 9. The district waited for six to seven months for the inspections, district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.
North Hills School District waited a year for its assessment, which the state police completed on May 7, said school spokeswoman Amanda Hartle.
Gateway School District requested an assessment in December, and troopers inspected buildings in March and April, said spokeswoman Cara Zanella. The assessments took two to six hours, depending on the building.
"We just swept the schools, inside and outside, crawled down hatches, looked for maintenance things that needed repairs, cameras placed at different angles, more radios, the entrances and the exits," Zanella said.
Many districts refused to wait. Some paired with local police departments or hired private consultants for similar inspections. An assessment from the Center for Safe Schools and Communities in Harrisburg can cost a district $1,000 to $1,500, director Lynn Cromley said.
Deer Lakes School District requested an assessment about six months before the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults died, said Acting Superintendent Janet Ciramella. The district since has coordinated with West Deer police to conduct two lockdown drills.
Avonworth School District worked with Ohio Township police to survey its buildings, said Dana Hackley, a spokeswoman. The state police said the district could wait for one to two years.
"Our safety committee just decided to have them go ahead and do it, rather than wait one to two years," Hackley said.
Copyright 2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review