Security tightened at Centre County schools

The smell of fresh paint filled the new vestibule inside the entrance of Bellefonte Elementary School on Monday, and a sleek setup of label-maker, license scanner and camera stood ready as a safety measure between the building and its visitors.

The school district and others in Centre County have added various security features to ensure the safety of students, teachers and staff during the school day.

School shootings around the country, including Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last year and at an Atlanta-area elementary school last week, also keep districts vigilant as administrators discuss the best ways to ensure safety and prevent a similar incident here.

In the Bellefonte district, Bellefonte and Pleasant Gap elementaries are the final two school buildings to be retrofitted with a series of safety measures, consisting of a buzzer into a vestibule, “storefront” window where visitors will scan their driver’s license and a second buzzer into the main building.

Plans began last year for the renovations and will be ready when school starts there Sept. 3. The total cost was near $90,000, paid for with savings from a refunded bond issue.

“It keeps track of people who come and go,” Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger said of the system. “Our goal is to ensure as much safety as we can to buy us time” to respond in an incident.

When someone arrives at a Bellefonte school, the secretary will buzz him into the vestibule. The secretary will see him through the office window, and he will slide his driver’s license through a scanner. That SchoolGate Guardian system searches the state Megan’s Law database for him and, if no alert pops up, prints a time-sensitive visitor’s badge with his photo. The secretary then will buzz him into the main school building.

Anyone without a driver’s license will give his name and date of birth for the Megan’s Law search, and a camera will take a photo for the visitor badge. Potteiger said the system only checks the sex offender database and not a person’s criminal background.

All staff and non-district service providers will scan into the system. Those who access buildings frequently, like Potteiger, have a SchoolGate key-tag the secretary can scan. Doing so also initiates a Megan’s Law search.

As early as next year, high school students who arrive late will scan their student IDs, logging the time they enter the building and printing a pass to enter their classrooms.

“We’re looking for a way to make everything compliant,” Potteiger said.

All buildings also have cameras installed at the front entrances and some have frosted glass where appropriate, to prevent people from looking down student hallways, for example.

“As we find little glitches, we fix them,” Potteiger said. “Safety is a non-stop discussion.”

Parents and other visitors who plan on stopping by facilities in the Penns Valley School District will also experience added security features.

Like in Bellefonte, visitors will face two separate levels of security entering Penns Valley schools.

Assistant Superintendent Sherri Connell said the district’s buildings will each have a single entry point. Visitors must be buzzed through the outside doors to enter a foyer and then buzzed in again to enter the school.

New hardware, including cameras, are being installed at all doors. Security footage from the cameras can be viewed from almost anywhere that district officials have access to a computer, Connell said. Police will also be able to view the feeds.

Cameras aren’t new for Penns Valley. The district placed them in its school buses last year. But the debate for increased security following the Newtown shooting ended with the Penns Valley school board approving additional measures this summer.

The district involved the public in that debate, joining other districts in inviting parents and others to attend a community forum with experts including John-Michael Keyes.

Keyes and his wife Ellen, lost their daughter, Emily, in 2006 when a gunman entered a high school in Colorado, held seven girls hostage and ultimately shot and killed the couple’s 16-year-old.

Since then, the pair has worked tirelessly to help schools and communities prepare for emergencies and prevent the worst from happening again. Penns Valley officials arranged for the Keyeses to come to the district to share their perspective on school-safety protocols.

Connell said the district is also proceeding with monthly and yearly emergency drills and ramping up its education regarding emergency procedures.

“I truly believe our biggest security measure comes from people in education,” she said.

In the State College Area School District, the high school buildings will be locked down during classes.

“When teachers and students are in their respective classrooms, we want our school community to understand that our facility is secured and does not permit anyone into the buildings who should not be present,” district officials said in a statement.

An electric door lock system will allow movement between the buildings during class changes. Those who want to enter the buildings at other times during the school day must be buzzed in, officials said.