Safety moves to front of the class: Districts install cameras to keep tabs on bullying, crimes

The students aren’t in school right now, but that doesn’t mean administrators have stopped thinking about how to keep children safe. In fact, for some districts, summer is the perfect time to work on improving security.

Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School just opened its doors in August, but it is already looking at making the building safer.

Superintendent Gregg Paladina said the building has 17 cameras that cover much of the outside of the Chester Hill, Clearfield County, building. They have coverage of the entrances. But inside spaces are less monitored, at least for now. When students return in August, that will be different.

“I want cameras in every hallway,” Paladina said.

Although cameras outside the building and at entrances protect students from outside threats, cameras inside can help protect students from other students.

“Bullying is definitely part of that,” Paladina said. He wants to more than double the number of cameras, for a total of 38. Eight of those will be in the four stairwells alone. More will cover areas where student-on-student aggression or bullying might also come to a head — in the cafeteria and on the playground.

The middle school was the site of bomb threats toward the end of the 2013-14 school year. Luckily, administrators were able to get to the bottom of the threats without reviewing video, because the cameras available inside at the time would not have helped. Two similar incidents at the high school did yield suspects based on surveillance footage.

The district has set aside $50,000 for the upgrades. That money was supposed to be spent by the end of the school year, but Paladina is seeking better quotes and the money has been placed in capital reserve for expenditure in the new fiscal year. Paladina still anticipates the work being completed over the summer.

At Mount Nittany Middle School, the security changes are even more dramatic.

According to State College Area School District spokeswoman Julie Miller, the layout of the middle school makes the most state-of-the-art security protocols difficult. The building’s office is between the back entrance, where buses drop off students, and the more public front entrance.

Those who are buzzed in have to walk through part of the building before getting to where they need to check in. Other older county schools, such as Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High School, have a similar layout that made sense at the time but in a post-Newtown world is just not deemed workable.

“They have to go probably 50 feet. There’s no way to know after you buzz them in if they go directly to the office,” Miller said.

This month, the school board approved about $164,000 in construction bids to create a small administration suite at that public entrance, placing a secretary and an administrator there as a kind of bulwark.

“It’s a better checkpoint,” Miller said.

She couldn’t say exactly how many cameras exist in the district’s middle and high schools, but did say they are throughout the buildings. The elementaries have no internal cameras.

“The other thing we did have installed last year as a result of the security audit were panic buttons in each of the school buildings in the district,” Miller said.

At Bellefonte, the high school has 94 cameras throughout the building. There are 45 at the middle school. The elementaries are guarded only by entrance cameras, in addition to the secured vestibules.

At Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania, parents started the 2013-14 school year walking through doors that were never locked. Halfway through the year, they started to adjust to a new system, in which gatekeeper Leslie Adams would answer a buzzer, look out her window to verify the identity of the visitor and unlock the door.

At the end of the school day, it leads to congestion. But parents clustered in the glass vestibule don’t complain.

The process of student security doesn’t end, administrators say. Every time one area is secured, another one can be advanced.

Paladina said that an additional $40,000-50,000 in upgrades for elementary security is the next item on his list.

“It’s always evolving, always a high priority,” said Miller, who said a security audit of State College buildings and protocols was done last year. Recommendations are always being implemented when possible.