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2018-05-01 / Features

Secure In Place?

Amid marches and mourning for those lost to gun violence, here’s what the State College Area School District is doing to keep our students safe.
Robyn Passante




On Feb. 23, Easterly Parkway Elementary School’s front office staff were going about their morning routine when a young man approached and began yanking on the front doors. Instead of buzzing him in, they alerted Principal Linda Colangelo. “Secure In Place,” she ordered, sounding the alarm that put the school on lockdown and notified police.

In less than one minute, officers were on the scene. An initial 911 call from someone outside the school had reported one possible gunshot victim inside and one person fleeing. They apprehended the would-be intruder and swept the grounds to make sure no firearm was present.

Inside, hallways were silent — students crouched low in darkened classrooms, entire kindergarten classes crammed into tiny bathrooms — as officers and Colangelo checked every crevice and closet before giving the “all clear.”

“A lot’s happening to help all of our kids, and support teachers. It’s a challenging job to be a teacher. And I don’t think it’s getting easier.” — Linda Coangelo, Easterly Parkway Elementary School Principal“A lot’s happening to help all of our kids, and support teachers. It’s a challenging job to be a teacher. And I don’t think it’s getting easier.” — Linda Coangelo, Easterly Parkway Elementary School Principal“I couldn’t believe that in a school with 350 kids, I could not hear one peep,” Colangelo says. “They took it seriously.”

And they continue to take it seriously. Easterly Parkway employees and others in the district have compiled six pages of notes on ways to use the incident to plan for the future. Doors that didn’t close or lock easily were identified. A conference room without speakers to hear announcements in was discovered. Pockets in the building with a weak cell signal were noted. Alternate scenarios for how things could have played out — “What would have happened if students were outside for recess,” Colangelo wondered, “or in the middle of lunch?” — were discussed.

“I think it has been a blessing in disguise because it went well, nobody was hurt, we learned a lot from it, and we’ve learned that it can happen here,” Colangelo says. “I think that’s probably the biggest lesson is that it can happen here.”

It may sound odd to call it a blessing, learning that the threat of an intruder is a reality in State College area schools. Expressing vigilance about keeping school doors locked and visitors vetted may seem trivial when some argue the real issue is the country’s ready access to guns, and others believe it’s a mental health crisis we need to handle.

But those in charge of keeping our students safe say that in an age when the words “school” and “shooting” have been partnered in tragedy again and again, denial is not a blessing. Preparation is.


[Securing Facilities]

Colangelo was retired for three years before returning to serve as interim principal at Easterly Parkway“A school is only as safe as the relationships that people have with their students. And we have good processes and procedures for identifying students who are at risk.”
— Curtis Johnson, State College Area High School Principal“A school is only as safe as the relationships that people have with their students. And we have good processes and procedures for identifying students who are at risk.” — Curtis Johnson, State College Area High School Principal this semester. Seeing the school through fresh eyes, she made changes in her first weeks to tighten security, reinforcing district rules that maintain all outer and inner doors stay locked, and closing one side’s entrance doors to the public.

“We couldn’t see the people who buzzed from that door with our camera. So you could buzz them in but you couldn’t see them,” she explains.

Easterly Parkway is one of several schools that use cameras — State College Area High School has more than 200, inside and outside — and district Superintendent Bob O’Donnell says more will be utilized as schools are slated to be updated.

A security team brought in to evaluate each school four years ago is returning this year for a re-evaluation. Design elements of the new State High and other buildings being renovated address security concerns, and all newer buildings have a double set of main entrance doors, both kept locked.

Visitors are sent directly to the front office, and they should all be ready to show ID.

“People aren’t just going to have access to our buildings,” says O’Donnell, whose children attend three different schools. O’Donnell was at State High the morning the call came in about Easterly Parkway, and “immediately thought we had a tragedy on our hands.” In the aftermath of what essentially became a live drill — the 911 call reporting a gunshot victim was unfounded and no firearms were present — he has reflected on how balancing adequate student safety with a welcoming atmosphere is a formula that’s continually adjusted.

“It’s been very positive among faculty just talking about these things, what would we do in these situations, how would we respond in these situations.” — Jenny Campbell, Science Teacher at Delta Program Middle School“It’s been very positive among faculty just talking about these things, what would we do in these situations, how would we respond in these situations.” — Jenny Campbell, Science Teacher at Delta Program Middle School“You want to get it right, and not be developing an environment that isn’t focused on families and their kids,” he says, noting that just a few years ago parents balked at having school doors locked; these days, they’re relieved. “Every year when we share goals and priorities with the board, safety and security will be one of the goals. I think certain years it’s more heightened, but it’s definitely something you have to prioritize to some degree every year.”

Those “certain years” seem to parallel national tragedies. It’s no surprise that anxiety was amped at Easterly Parkway that morning because of what had just happened in Parkland, Florida, less than two weeks before. Colangelo recalls the mass murder at the West Nickel Mines School in 2006 being the impetus for locking doors and installing security cameras here. Nittany Valley Charter School CEO Kara Martin says “everything changed” after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Charter and private schools have their own security rules, but Martin’s mirror the district’s. And every school in the area is covered by the local police departments, whose officers visit regularly. O’Donnell is working with the police chiefs to make sure officers have independent access to every school.

In addition, there are three armed School Resource Officers: one full-time at State High, another at Park Forest Middle School, and a third who splits time between Delta Program and Mount Nittany middle schools. Plus, State High has two security officers on staff, and seven additional security guards contracted to help manage traffic and monitor exterior doors and the campus at large.

“Unless you want to make this a prison, you’re never going to be able to completely secure the facility,” says Officer Terry Stec, who’s been the SRO stationed at State High for 12 years. Stec says security isn’t so much about making sure people can’t get in as it is training people on how to get out.


[Preparing Students]

If you ask Gray’s Woods Elementary fifth-grader Annika Ross whether her school does intruder drills, she’ll say no. “We just have fire drills,” she says. Then she adds, “Well, and the animal drill.”

The “animal drill,” Annika explains, is when all the students go into the corner of the classroom, the teacher closes the blinds, they push desks against the door and then stay very quiet. “It’s in case a dangerous animal gets in the school,” she says.

“If I know (a visitor) then I can open the door and wave them in. If I don’t know who they are, I walk down (to the front door) and I step outside and let the door lock behind me, and I talk to them. I’ve always done that.”
— Kara Martin, Nittany Valley charter School’s CEO“If I know (a visitor) then I can open the door and wave them in. If I don’t know who they are, I walk down (to the front door) and I step outside and let the door lock behind me, and I talk to them. I’ve always done that.” — Kara Martin, Nittany Valley charter School’s CEOAnnika is describing Secure In Place, the drill that students across the district have been practicing for years in case of an intruder. It is, essentially, the “Hide” part of Run, Hide, Fight, the tactics faculty and staff are taught each year for facing an intruder situation.

This year, students in middle and high school are starting to be trained on the “Run” and “Fight” portions, too.

“For years we’ve done Run, Hide, Fight with staff,” says Lt. Gregory Brauser, who heads up Community Relations within the State College Police Department; Stec and the other SROs report to him. “Now it’s time to go onto the next step and get the kids ready.” At the elementary level, students should follow whatever their teacher commands in a crisis. “But when you’re dealing with the high school,” Brauser says, “they need to know how to take care of themselves at that point.”

The district’s first Run, Hide, Fight intruder drill was held at Delta Program Middle School in April.

Students and faculty were briefed before and after, and local law enforcement was on the scene. When the announcement was made that there was an intruder in the building, last seen in the cafeteria, every person on the premises had a decision to make based on where they were and what options were available to them. In 55 seconds, everyone who chose to flee was safely outside.

Delta science teacher Jenny Campbell and her students decided to stay put. Situated in a science “I didn’t want to see us sit back again through another event, through another tragedy. I don’t want to sweep it under the carpet anymore.” — Kyra Gines, State High Sophomore“I didn’t want to see us sit back again through another event, through another tragedy. I don’t want to sweep it under the carpet anymore.” — Kyra Gines, State High Sophomoreclassroom right above the cafeteria, their door near a stairway between floors, they opted to barricade themselves inside and talk about their options if the simulated crisis was real. Those options included going out the window and using the fire extinguisher in the classroom to defend themselves.

“I think it was really good for the kids too to see what resources they have available to them,” Campbell says. “Students know they have the option to do what they feel is best in that moment.”
Stec says doing a true Run, Hide, Fight drill at State High is going to take some logistical planning, but it’s an important next step.

“The kids need to be part of the training because if they’re not, they’re not gonna know what to do,” he says. And it’s equally important for them — and parents — to understand that training them to fight is not meant to make would-be heroes out of anyone.

“That is a last resort. Evacuation’s the best,” Stec says. “It’s highly unlikely that anyone would be in the position to stay and fight because if they do everything correctly they’re either outside the school or behind a locked and barricaded door.”

Currently most schools do a Secure In Place drill a couple times a year. Pennsylvania law requires one fire drill a month, and administrators, principals and law enforcement are starting to question that imbalance.

“If you think about the probability of an intruder versus a fire,” Colangelo says, “I think today the intruder is probably much higher.”


[Monitoring Behavior]

Kara Martin stands at the front door of Nittany Valley Charter School every morning, greeting the students as they tromp up the steps to start their day. On the surface it looks like a friendly touch at a K-8 school with just under 50 kids. But there’s more to it than holding open a locked door and waving to parents.

“I don’t feel as safe as I should because I know no matter what precautions are taken, nothing can stop an active shooter. … When we watched the Emma Gonzalez speech and other students speaking about it, it felt like they could have been State High students.” — Kayla Fatemi, State Sigh Senior“I don’t feel as safe as I should because I know no matter what precautions are taken, nothing can stop an active shooter. … When we watched the Emma Gonzalez speech and other students speaking about it, it felt like they could have been State High students.” — Kayla Fatemi, State Sigh Senior“I’m watching and seeing how they’re feeling, what their mood is, especially if I have any concerns about students,” she says. In her quick “Hi, how’s it going?” Martin is assessing the mental and emotional states of those she’s in charge of for seven hours a day. And educators across the district say that is perhaps the most important layer of the safety issue facing schools.

“A school is only as safe as the relationships that people have with their students. And we have good processes and procedures for identifying students who are at risk,” says State High Principal Curtis Johnson. “Usually the students that come in and do some type of violent action are those students who’ve been bullied or have some type of mental health issues.”

At the high school, weekly meetings are held with Stec, school counselors, administrators and outside personnel to discuss students they feel are at risk or having trouble. The group brainstorms how to approach a student and get them the right kind of help.

“I’m a resource,” Stec says. “A lot of what we do here is intervention; it’s getting involved early.”

There’s also a Student Assistance Program, for which students, teachers and even parents can refer a “The most inspiring part to I think all of us is that we’ve been able to draw this many people for the shared cause of gun control.” — Jackson Harper, State High Junior“The most inspiring part to I think all of us is that we’ve been able to draw this many people for the shared cause of gun control.” — Jackson Harper, State High Juniorstudent based on a concern. A referral can arise from a variety of things, from a student worried about a friend who’s showing signs of depression, to a student noticing a classmate perusing a website for firearms.

“Is that unusual around here? No. But with that being said, we now contact the student, contact the parent, we follow up on every one,” says Stec, who has received 10 to 15 such tips since the school shooting in Parkland. “It raises alarm bells these days. None of them were a concern, but we looked at all of them.”

As part of the district-wide Inclusive Excellence Program, a bullying survey was conducted this year at State High, asking two questions: “Are you being bullied?” and “Who is bullying you?”

Counselors offered support to each student who said “yes.” As far as those accused, Johnson says a student’s name had to come up three times for it to be significant enough to act on, and “there weren’t that many. It was typical numbers. But it was a way to address the students who might be unwilling to come forth about being bullied.”

Nine counselors are on staff at State High, and the district has been adding counselors in the lower grades, too. The hope, O’Donnell says, is that by the fall of 2018 there will be nearly one full-time counselor at each elementary school. Also next fall, the district will implement a counseling curriculum at the K-5 level to introduce things like coping skills and pro-social behavior.

“That’s one more thing that supports our schoolwide positive behavior support plan,” O’Donnell says.

“It’s really like literacy; the earlier we work on supporting the development of students behaviorally, the better.”

Run. Hide. Fight.
How to respond when an active shooter is in your vicinity.


RUN and escape, if possible.

  1. Getting away from the shooter or shooters is the top priority.
  2. Leave your belongings behind and get away.
  3. Help others escape, if possible, but evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow.
  4. Warn and prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be.
  5. Call 911 when you are safe, and describe shooter, location and weapons.

HIDE, if escape is not possible.

  1. Get out of the shooter’s view and stay very quiet.
  2. Silence all electronic devices and make sure they won’t vibrate.
  3. Lock and block doors, close blinds, and turn off lights.
  4. Don’t hide in groups – spread out along walls or hide separately to make it more difficult for the shooter.
  5. Try to communicate with police silently. Use text message or social media to tag your location, or put a sign in the window.
  6. Stay in place until law enforcement gives you the all clear.
  7. Your hiding place should be out of the shooter’s view and provide protection if shots are fired in your direction.

FIGHT as an absolute last resort.

  1. Commit to your actions and act as aggressively as possible against the shooter.
  2. Recruit others to ambush the shooter with makeshift weapons like chairs, fire extinguishers, scissors, books, etc.
  3. Be prepared to cause severe or lethal injury to the shooter.
  4. Throw items and improvise weapons to distract and disarm the shooter.

Source: ready.gov



[Igniting Change]

State High senior Kayla Fatemi was born seven months after the Columbine shooting. The Nickel Mines murders happened when she was in elementary school. The Sandy Hook tragedy is a middle school memory.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, to have grown up hearing of gun violence, in schools and elsewhere, while enjoying the sense of security that comes with being reared in a community that’s low on crime and high on opportunity.

“I think State College is really safe,” she says. But in February something shifted for Fatemi and other students in Centre County and across the country as they watched their Florida peers on social media crying for their lives. Snapchat, usually known for silliness and selfies, suddenly became a window into a frightening parallel world.

“One video I saw had students in a room hiding, and you could hear the gunshots, and every time a gun went off they were screaming,” says Fatemi, who watched that clip with her own friends, crying and consoling one another.

Fatemi’s principal is dismayed at the ready access his students have to such tormenting tragedy. He’s also proud of them for the ways in which they want their views to be heard.

“They are more vocal in wanting it to change, to put a voice to it to stop,” Johnson says of the issues of gun violence and school safety. “They are resilient, but they are also in tune with what’s going on.”

Fatemi and several other students organized March 14 walkouts at area schools to honor the Parkland victims, as well as a local March For Our Lives on March 24 from the high school to Old Main. It drew hundreds of students and community members, and it began with rallying speeches by Fatemi and sophomore Kyra Gines.

“I didn’t want to see us sit back again through another event, through another tragedy,” says Gines of why she has gotten involved with the demonstrations. “I don’t want to sweep it under the carpet anymore.”

Junior Jackson Harper, also an organizer of the high school’s March 14 walkout, traveled to Washington, D.C. for the March For Our Lives. The estimated crowd of more than 200,000 moved the teen, but the 500-plus who came out in State College was just as motivating. “I think that’s been the most inspiring part to I think all of us is that we’ve been able to draw this many people for the shared cause of gun control,” he says.

At a press conference after the March 14 Parkland memorial walkout, Harper had a message for his fellow students on how they can advocate for their own safety. “Call your congressmen. Get involved, because that is really how you make this change,” he suggested, before pleading to those who can: “Please register to vote as well.”

Back at Easterly Parkway, Colangelo reflects on her own childhood. She grew up in Boston, where her school’s doors were locked and windows were barred. But her first teaching position was at Easterly Parkway in the 1980s, and she says “there’s no way I ever would have imagined Secure In Place drills, and keeping everything locked, and asking for people’s IDs.”

A few days after the intruder incident, the new principal passed a little girl in the hallway. Still trying to get to know the students, she asked the first-grader her name, and then introduced herself. Colangelo smiles as she recalls the girl’s response, a moment of recognition and assurance, innocence and significance.

“Oh! You’re the person who wouldn’t let the stranger in.” •SCM


Safey Tips for Parents

  1. See Something, Say Something: Remind children to tell teachers, staff members, school resource officers or principals about concerning individuals or behavior immediately.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open with your children and teens — an important step to staying involved in their schoolwork, friends and
  3. activities.
  4. Each middle school and high school website homepage includes a Student Assistance Program (SAP) referral link for reporting concerns about a student.
  5. The free SCASD App (available in the App Store or Google Play) has an anonymous tip line for reporting concerns.
  6. Don’t hold doors open for other visitors entering schools. Everyone must be screened first, then buzzed in.
  7. Monitor your child’s social media activity and talk about appropriate communication.
  8. Initiate conversations about potentially difficult or embarrassing topics such as violence, smoking, drugs, sex, drinking and death, rather than waiting for children or teens to come to you.
  9. Know what’s normal behavior for your child. This can help identify sudden changes in behavior and provide an early warning about something that’s troubling him or her. Such changes should be an alert to potential problems.
  10. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home — what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Source: State College Area School District administration


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