Michelle Merlin and Sarah M. Wojcik Of The Morning Call
In March, barely a month after the mass shooting at Parkland, Fla., high school, two parents appeared before the Southern Lehigh School Board with an urgent plea.
“I speak on behalf of a lot of parents who are very concerned with the safety of our kids. I don’t feel safe with the measures the district has in place,’’ parent Nicole Lisicky said.
“There has to be something done soon, especially in the high school and middle school. There are hundreds of kids in these halls, and the way it is, someone can easily get in here,’’ parent Caren Richards added.
All across the Lehigh Valley, parents and school officials were having similar discussions in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and staff members dead and an equal number injured.
It was a topic they have tackled many times, spurred by what a Los Angeles Times analysis found to be more than 180 school shootings with injuries or deaths between December 2012, when 26 students and staff were gunned down in Newtown, Conn., and May.
Many school districts in Lehigh and Northampton counties took action, including Southern Lehigh, which is seeking a grant to add a second armed officer to patrol its five schools.
A Morning Call analysis, drawn from Right to Know requests and interviews, found that since the Florida shooting, school districts in the two counties have formed their own police departments, added officers, bought new technology and held active shooter training.
Districts reported 50 armed police or security guards among 17 school districts in the Lehigh Valley, The Morning Call found.
Since the Parkland shooting, at least six school districts have or are planning to add more armed personnel.
Armed personnel fall into three categories — school resource officers, who are attached to local police departments but work in the district; police officers who work directly for the district; and security staff provided by contractors.
Those taking action include Easton Area, where 10 more part-time officers were hired for its in-house police force, and Pen Argyl Area and Catasauqua Area, which will have armed security for the first time.
The Wilson Area School District will add a single, armed officer from the Wilson Borough Police Department ranks to serve as a school resource officer.
All but Saucon Valley School District have at least one armed person in their district during the school day, and all have memoranda of understanding with local police departments to respond to emergencies.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars locking up our buildings in the last 10 years and putting in security cameras in every hallway and everything,” said Pen Argyl Superintendent William Haberl when the decision was made in March to hire a contractor to provide three armed personnel.
“This is just another layer of security that we felt we’d better add because these school shootings are so out of hand.”
Shifting security priorities
The move to add armed security comes as a national poll in May conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International found 80 percent of parents surveyed support armed security in schools.
At KRE Security, a Hamburg company that provides armed and unarmed security guards, owner Jarrod Emes doesn’t need a poll to tell him parents want better protection at their schools.
In 2014, the firm had no contracts with school districts. By this year, it had three contracts and requests for quotes for armed security from nine districts, Emes said.
Emes said there has been a cultural shift when it comes to hiring school security.
“The question now for a lot of people is do we arm or do we not arm?” he said.
Locally, KRE has provided one armed and three unarmed guards for athletic events for the Northern Lehigh School District, according to information obtained under a Right to Know request. Northern Lehigh also has a school resource officer.
KRE also provided armed security for school buildings in the Northwestern Lehigh School District in the past.
But droves of parents who turned out at a public meeting in March led Northwestern Lehigh to change course and go with its own police force with officers powered to make arrests.
“What we heard loud and clear at the community forum was they wanted to have more armed presence,” district Superintendent Jennifer Holman said.
A few other Lehigh Valley schools, including Easton Area, Bangor Area and Northampton Area, operate their own departments.
Often the motivation is the sheer size of large districts, which can cover multiple municipalities, some with and some without their own police departments.
Northwestern Lehigh hired retired state police Capt. Brian Tobin to oversee the district department.
Holman said the department’s staffing hasn’t been finalized and she declined to say how many officers the district planned to bring on board.
While the district batted around the idea for years, Holman said the Florida shooting brought a sense of urgency for the initiative, which will cost $211,000 — more than the KRE contract, which cost $83,960 last year.
But a district-based police department, Holman said, would come with proactive, community-building potential, too.
“You look at it from all those perspectives and it really is a no-brainer,” she said.
Catasauqua Superintendent Robert Spengler said his district talked about hiring a school resource officer about 15 years ago.
“There just was not the same support for it to happen back then,” Spengler said. “It is absolutely imperative these days.”
The addition isn’t cheap. For a district with a roughly $31 million budget for its three schools, the single officer will cost about $75,000, Spengler said.
Easton Area committed $250,000 to $300,000 to hiring armed staff, and already added 10 part-time armed officers to secure its police force as part of a reaction to the Florida shooting.
It previously had armed officers stationed at its high school, middle school and academy, but they only sometimes rotated through the district’s elementary schools. With the additional staff, someone will be at each school throughout the day.
John Remaley, Easton Area’s director of safe schools, who used to work for the city police department, hopes to hire a few more part-time officers, but he’s taking the time to make sure he picks people who are the right fit.
“I want them to not only be there to provide security and safety, but to interact and establish relationships with these children and let these kids know, you know what, the police officer is a resource for me, and he or she’s a person I can go to and trust,” Remaley said.
Active shooter training another tool
At a recent training session, he ran six new officers through how to enter a classroom where a shooter lurked inside. They charged into an empty classroom, replica guns drawn, while Remaley offered gentle corrections and tips.
If someone is looking for a shooter in a room, they should look for indications of a person — a hat, elbow or shoe tip — not an entire person, he said.
The district’s additional security doesn’t end with armed guards; among other changes, its starting a student ID and visitor program in which students at the high school and middle school will have to swipe IDs when they enter the school.
Visitors will also have to check in, and when they do their names will be checked with a sexual offender database, as well as other data, such as custody agreements and protection from abuse orders. The program costs $160,000 in the first year.
Northampton Area hired its first police officer in August 2006, three months after a student used a guitar case to sneak a rifle into the school, then threatened to kill himself.
"This board really took to heart what happened on May 25, " then Superintendent Linda Firestone said at the time.
The district now has two in-house armed police officers, eight unarmed guards and several hall monitors, each with roles to help students in need, spot troubling behavior and react in the event of violence, according to Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik.
Like Easton, Northampton’s security staff is going through active shooter training.
The Whitehall-Coplay School would not provide the information on security sought by The Morning Call, citing privacy.
But in a Feb. 24 notice to parents, Superintendent Lorie Hackett said the district has one armed resource officer for its five schools.
The school resource officer, who is from the Whitehall Township Police Department, has been stationed at the high school for years.
This coming school year, a second officer will be at the district’s middle school for the first time in at least a decade, police Lt. Greg Bealer said .
“When we, God forbid, ever have a major incident happen, they’re already on campus, they’re familiar with the schools,” Bealer said. “More important than that is the relationship they have with the kids and the educators.”
Bealer said the impetus to add another officer came from the school shootings across the nation, as well as the spate of threats the school dealt with in their wake.
Whitehall-Coplay responded to four threats made over two weeks after the Parkland shooting.
The trend played out across the Lehigh Valley, where a Morning Call analysis found districts received more threats in the month after the Florida shooting than in the previous five and a half months combined.
Armed security no panacea
Armed officers don’t guarantee students will be safe.
At Marjory Stoneman in Florida, an armed school resource officer was posted on campus, but surveillance video showed him outside the building where the shooter roamed the halls.
Saucon Valley School District has no armed guards but has two unarmed security paraprofessionals who patrol the high school’s hallways, cafeteria and other noninstructional areas.
Superintendent Craig Butler doesn’t view more security guards as the answer to security at Saucon Valley.
Butler, who just finished his first year at Saucon Valley, said he had school police officers in every building at his previous job in the Hazleton Area School District.
“We still had a multitude of problems,” he said. “I’m not sure that in and of itself is the answer.”
He said Saucon Valley is looking at a more holistic approach to safety, including stronger partnering with the Lower Saucon Township and Hellertown police departments.
Butler said he hasn’t ironed out the details with police chiefs, but it could include a more visible presence on the school campus — such as police cars parked outside school buildings and officers walking through schools.
Butler said having a visible armed officer can be beneficial.
“It’s a little bit unrealistic to think one person could be everywhere at every moment in a large building, and I think that’s really what it requires,” he said.
Even as they boost security personnel, districts say being as prepared as possible is important, too.
That’s why Northampton Area’s Kovalchik said he intends to constantly evaluate best practices and procedures for safety.
And it’s why Easton Area’s Remaley was running his officers through drills Tuesday.
“Let’s face it: law enforcement, 90 percent of the time, we want to be proactive, proactive, proactive,” he said. “Typically, what do we end up being? Reactive. We’re already 5 seconds into somebody’s actions.”