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Area schools refine security

Lancaster shootings latest incident to cause officials, experts to examine protection.

Heinous crimes like the shootings near Lancaster grab headlines, but school security systems are more frequently tested by events that aren’t reported.

“Right now, the biggest problem we face is who has custody of a child and what parent is the custodial parent,” said Dallas School District Superintendent Frank Galicki.

The best defense against unauthorized intrusion is channeling visitors through an area where they can be registered and screened. But even that isn’t always possible. “There isn’t a secure area in some of the older buildings,” Galicki said.

“You depend upon personnel” and securely locked doors, he said, but there’s always a risk someone could evade detection.

Tom Hillman, whose company has security installations at schools throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania, said it’s a challenge to make sure systems are maintained and used consistently.

Nearly all schools have cameras, and when they are first installed everyone is diligent about watching the displays.

“After three months you don’t even look at it,” he said. “The system’s only as good as the people operating it.”

Hillman said new systems can distribute camera images to computers throughout a school so more eyes are on the job. Administrators can keep a small window open on their computer desktop and glance at it while doing other work.

Schools also are taking steps to see that teachers and staff members know how to react to an emergency. Lake-Lehman School District, one of Hillman’s customers, recently received a $100,000 federal grant that will be used primarily to train teachers, staff and students in emergency response.

Galicki said all superintendents in Pennsylvania received an e-mail Wednesday from the Secretary of Education asking that schools check their emergency policies and procedures.

In response, Galicki met Wednesday morning with administrators to plan a mock lockdown drill this week. There also are plans to retrain teachers and staff on emergency protocols.

“Every year you get new teachers and new personnel,” he said. “It’s got to be a constant orientation for new people and a reorientation for existing staff.”

Schools have far better security today than they did in 1999, when two students killed a dozen other students, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School in Colorado. That tragedy sparked special funding to help schools buy lock and camera systems.

“Compared to five years ago, it’s becoming an important asset,” Hillman said. But school boards still can be handcuffed by short-term budget constraints. “If the roof leaks, the cameras go on the wayside and the roof gets fixed.

“I know everybody has budgets, but they should have a long-term plan,” he said, buying what they can afford a little at a time until a system becomes adequate.

While similar in many ways, schools have specific security needs and limitations compared to businesses.

“You can’t lock the kids up all day,” said Jim Grinavich, commercial sales manager for Vector Security Inc. in Wilkes-Barre.

Perhaps most important, unlike in commercial applications where wrongdoing can be investigated after the fact, “we need to know when something happens immediately,” Grinavich said.

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