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North Penn School Safety Forum Reveals Changes, Shortcomings

Led by North Penn Safe Schools Coordinator Ray Wilson, a forum Monday night on school safety, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, presented what's keeping students safe and what's going to make them safer

North Penn School Safety Forum Reveals Changes, Shortcomings

Some things were revealed Monday night at a school safety forum at North Penn High School that informed parents what's keeping their children safe and what's being scrutinized to make them safer.

Namely, the possibility of an armed, trained and certified security guard at the high school.

Parents also discovered that there is an absence of staffed security at the elementary schools, as North Penn High School and the middle schools are viewed as facilities with higher than average (and older) troublemakers.

Specifics of security measures at the schools in the district were generalized, as not to jeopardize them, said Superintendent Curt Dietrich.

"During the week since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, we've received emails from parents, grandparents and community leaders. It's important to know we are not alone in keeping our students safe," Dietrich said.

Ray Wilson is a retired 31-year veteran of Hatfield Township Police and the North Penn Tactical Response Team. He is currently the Safe Schools Coordinator at North Penn School District.

"I'm proud of what we've done here," he said. "We can always do more."

When Wilson came on board in 2009, his first step was to implement more routine emergency drills in all 18 schools. Those drills, he said, are based on a national protocol.

"I've seen instances where, in kindergarten to twelfth grade, those drills saved a lot of lives," he said.

Wilson found that a lot of staff in the district were not trained in different procedures as it relates to incident management. So, Wilson got everyone and anyone trained: cafeteria aides, substitute teachers, classroom aides and support staff.

"They weren't aware of what they were supposed to be doing," Wilson said.

Wilson said there is a good security force in all secondary schools of mostly retired and unarmed police officers.

"They know what to do in most situations," he said.

Those security officers are all trained in NIMS — National Incident Management System.

Wilson's plan is to get all faculty trained in NIMS and other aspects of emergency response.

"It's of the utmost importance for teachers," he said. "I told them if they work here at North Penn School District, teachers and staff have to do the right thing to protect the students."

From 2009 to today, Wilson is constantly performing vulnerability assessments in all the schools.

"I go around and do an assessment and see where we are lacking, where we need to improve on some things," he said.

One of the best things the school district has in regard to school safety is the Raptor system, Wilson said. 

However, the Raptor system has only been in operation at all secondary schools since 2010, and at all elementary schools since 2013.

"It checks for registered sex offenders in all 50 states," he said. "You have to produce a driver's license and wear a visitor's badge when you come into a school."

Raptor works as such: Scan a visitor's driver's license or state-issued ID and a web-based program developed by Raptor called V-soft instantly screens for not just sex offenders, but also domestic dispute offenders and trespassers, according to its website.

If the visitor's badge prints, then the visitor is cleared by the program. Should a scan of the ID be of an offender, the V-soft program instantly alerts administrators and law enforcement via email, phone, text or page.

The Raptor V-soft system costs around $432 a year, according to its website.

Another safety measure in the works in the district are new emergency radio systems for staff members. The radios provide capability for school officials to talk to police on secured channels. Wilson said he is working on policy and procedures for those radios, which would also provide interoperability with all the schools.

Furthermore, an assessment at Penndale Middle School proved the need to submit a grant to get more radios at that school.

"We want to outfit a lot of administrators in the district with radios," Wilson said.

Post Connecticut, the Safe Schools Committee immediately began to assess its safety measures again, Wilson said.

"It hit me hard, thinking about the situation in Connecticut," said the grandfather to North Penn students. "We really want to keep your kids safe here."

One new initiative — early morning and after-school learning has been locked down at the elementary school level.

New buzzers and camera systems will be installed at some schools in the next few months, in order to lock down entrances better.

Joining Wilson on the panel were law enforcement officials Lt. Gerry Dougherty from Montgomery Township Police, Chief David Duffy from Upper Gwynedd Township Police and Lt. Jeff Kratz from Towamencin Township Police. Other law enforcement representatives, including Officer Justin DiBonaventura from Lansdale Police, were present in the audience.

Also on the panel were Steve Beck, the Montgomery County Safe Schools Coordinator; Pete DeMeester, regional director of Family Based Services at Northwestern Human Services; and Charlene Artillio, student assistance program director at NHS.

Duffy informed the audience that, in the wake of Sandy Hook, more officers were assigned to patrol schools, hallways and parking lots.

Wilson said he has received phone calls from about every chief in the district with a promise to do their part in providing more of a police presence at the schools.

In the spring, Wilson will organize a tabletop exercise with local law enforcement and school officials. He described a tabletop exercise as an emergency simulation with "all the players": school administration, staff, fire, police and EMS.

Wilson also said he is continuously updating emergency procedures for the school and the county emergency procedures.

"I think these are great things to keep our kids safe and we can do more to keep them safe," he said.

The panel then fielded questions from the audience. One parent asked if substitute teachers would be trained on emergency responses. Wilson said all substitutes will be trained as part of their orientation, and he is working with district human resources to implement that.

A father of an A.M. Kulp seven year old said he was pleased to see changes being implemented at the elementary school.

"Is there any thought on ... to put somebody in the schools ... with a concealed weapon, so there is no target painted on the head of anyone? Someone who is trained and can disrupt and stop an attacker?" he asked. 

Wilson said it was definitely something to look into, but advised caution.

"There are two sides of the issue," he said. "We are a public school here and in a tough situation. We are looking into that. I'm glad we have police in the schools more often. I wish we could have them 24/7. I don't know if it's possible."

Another parent said she noticed that in the early morning at one elementary school, the buzzer system is "constantly going off." She was concerned that secretaries cannot always see who they are buzzing in, and asked if there are protective measures in place to lock down the office in case of an intruder.

Wilson said there is a protocol that comes with the buzzer system at the schools. In some cases, there are secretaries just buzzing people in, he said. However, since Connecticut, the schools have buckled down on that, he said, and secretaries are inquiring about names of visitors and their purposes at the schools.

"After an assessment, we will evaluate that," he said. "Most offices are able to be locked."

One mother whose child is new to the district from New Jersey asked about school measures as it relates to talking to children about the Sandy Hook tragedy.

"We did make the decision ... to not be the ones to break down the tragedy to kids. That decision should be by the parents," said DeMeester. "Some wrote us back and said 'Thank you.' I think the cliche is we have to talk to our kids. I encourage us to do more listening."

DeMeester said there may also be anxiety already present in a child, and now trauma may be stacked on top of it in the wake of the tragedy. He recommended adults deal with their trauma first, before speaking to a child. He said to find a balance between stress and the child.

"If you are feeling stressed or traumatized, reach out to your support system," he said. "Deal with the tragedy first (for you), before you deal with the child."

Antillio said NHS does offer assessments and screening for mental health issues, suicide, depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

"The mental health aspect is huge," Dietrich said. "If you have a concern about your kids, or you notice something about a friend of yours kids, talk to the school."

One parent asked if students and faculty should flee or hide when it comes to an intruder in the school. Berk said the Columbine tragedy made lockdowns become one-dimensional, but now, countrywide, statewide and countywide, lockdowns are just one aspect of an approach to an intruder in the building.

If someone is in another part of a building, then evacuation or further evading would be best, he said.

Duffy said lockdowns are the basic go-to for drills, and intruder drills should be done when students are in the hallway or when other things are going on, so they don't expect it.

"You have that crisis training to come up with a safe situation as it's unfolding," Duffy said.

Kratz said law enforcement participation in intruder drills is a great opportunity for police to learn a little bit more about how to carry out their duties to the students and the community.

"We make sure we focus on what's critical in a situation like that," Kratz said. "We have a stake in this professionally and personally. We are here to do everything we can to keep kids safe."

Dougherty said the D.A.R.E. program in Montgomery Township has strengthened the connection between police officers and students.

"Everyone in every specialty here can look at scenarios and analyze from a 'what if and what can we do better' standpoint," he said. "We are rethinking all ideas and analyze it all so we can be the best we can and be as safe as we can."

As far as getting students to report unusual behavior, Duffy said the presence in the schools builds a trust level with students, staff and police.

"Being a part of their routine allows for a better flow of information," Duffy said.

Wilson said the Safe Schools Committee involves students in its activities to see what can be done better from an information standpoint.

"We are trying to make kids feel at home and that they can trust an adult. We think it's working," he said.

Wilson said the forum would be one of many to update parents and faculty on progress with school safety measures.

The Safe Schools Committee meets at the Educational Services Center in Lansdale at 6 p.m. on Jan. 31.

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