ID issues

For the past four months, Altoona Area junior and senior high students have been ordered by school administrators to wear identification cards on lanyards around their necks or face detention.

Detention halls have been filled more frequently than usual over the past four months, students sad.

Senior Uthman Hill has had a couple detentions, no, “a lot,” he said for forgetting his ID. “If you forget a few times, you get Saturday detention. It’s corny,” he said of the rule.

The reason for the ID cards was presented by administrators as “for security reasons,” but many students don’t think it’s effective.

“I don’t know how it will stop someone from coming into the school,” junior Katelyn Mauser said.

“I don’t like them – a lot of girls don’t like them. It ruins outfits,” she said.

Some have accepted the change.

“I really don’t mind them anymore,” sophomore Sam Figard said. “They are just a habit. Everybody complains about them, but it’s really not a big deal to me.”

The IDs don’t necessarily serve a purpose to senior Devaughn Brawley.

“I don’t think they are needed, but I don’t think they are useless. I just put it on because I was told to – ‘for security reasons,’ which implies the whole Newtown thing,” he said.

Although the reason for the IDs was not expressly stated, students believe they understand their purpose – “because of what happened in Connecticut,” seventh-grader Cory Graffius said. “In some way they are useful because they can identify who you are,” he said.

Nationwide, students wearing IDs around their necks has been a common practice for as long as Kevin Quinn, National Association of School Resource Officers president, can remember.

Quinn is also a 12-year Arizona school resource officer.

The IDs serve as a way to quickly identify students, Quinn said.

The reason for the IDs at Altoona isn’t just Newtown, said district Community Relations Director Paula Foreman.

IDs are required at Altoona junior and senior high schools because students from other school districts have entered the schools to blend in with their Altoona Area friends as a joke, she said.

Graduate Harry Smeltzer said the badges may keep drugs out of schools.

But upset that administrators sought to discredit his complaints instead of listen to him, Mike Lattieri has pulled his daughter out of the district and enrolled her in a cyber school after she was given detention for forgetting her ID during what was supposed to be a “grace period” during the first few weeks of the new rule.

He sought understanding from administrators, but they were not responsive, he said.

“They change the rules to suit themselves,” he said.

Foreman said detentions were implemented earlier than communicated to parents, but the change was communicated to students.

Some think the IDs are a mistake of priorities.

“Forgetting to wear an ID badge isn’t a breach of security,” Martin Burchner said. “Letting a 48-year-old man walk the halls of your school … that is a breach of security.”

After entering the junior high school to pick up his son without as much as his driver’s license being checked by the school’s greeter, Burchner believes the district’s buildings are not secure.

He supported the need for metal detectors or wands at the school such as those used at the Blair County Courthouse.

“I’m paranoid, but these are not the times when we can just smile, nod and shake hands,” Burchner said.

The Altoona Area School District owns walk-through metal detectors and metal detecting wands used by officers to conduct periodical searches of students.

It’s rare for districts to conduct metal detector searches, Quinn said.

Foreman said using the metal detectors for searching busloads of students with backpacks daily would be time consuming and would require more manpower on the district’s security staff.

“I don’t know that we are to the point that would necessitate metal detectors every day,” Foreman said.

Altoona Area is one of 58 school districts in the state with full-time, in-house, police officers employed directly by the school district and qualified to carry a weapon. Many more of the state’s 501 districts have security officers or officers contracted from local police departments.

It was Superintendent Dennis Murray’s vision to establish a police services department at a time when it wasn’t common, Foreman said. Altoona Area’s police services are comprised of five officers based at the high school.

In October, when students reported that one of their peers had a gun in school, school police conducted interviews with the suspected student and the student’s guardians.

A request for the department’s incident logs was denied because the district’s police do not keep logs in the same way as state and local police departments and are not required to generate them.

Foreman was adamant that “there was no gun,” but the rumor spread overnight through Facebook. “That is the danger of social media,” she said.

Since that rumor, Burchner has instructed his son to have a cellphone on him at all times.

Cellphones must be kept in students’ lockers under school rules. It’s one rule that Burchner had hoped would be reversed as a result of the rumored gun threat in October.

“I can understand the rule against phones, but I don’t care,” he said.

His son was given detention for having a cellphone in class, turned off, he said. That combined with his experience as a visitor not being checked at the door caused him to enroll his son in cyber school, feeling that his son is safer at home.

In regard to the gun rumor, Foreman said, “You can understand parents getting nervous. But we were already on it and had it resolved before the student in question left that day.”

Foreman declined to say whether the student in question was punished for any violation of school code. She said the IDs were not implemented as a result of the incident.

But if a student has a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school, they’ll be expelled.

Following recommendations from the district police and the state, the Altoona Area school board adopted a revised weapons policy on Wednesday that expels students for a minimum of one year for possessing a weapon.

Weapons may include “any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, nunchaku, firearm, shotgun, rifle, replica of a weapon, and or any other tool, instrument or implement capable of inflicting bodily injury,” but the definition is not limited to those items.

Board President Ryan Beers wanted clarification of all definitions of what could be a weapon so the district was not becoming like schools he’s learned of where students were disciplined for having bubble guns and pastries bitten into the shape of a gun.

Altoona Area Police Chief Jack Reilly assured him that common sense would be used in expelling a student.

“We would refer to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code for the definition [of a weapon]. So if an elementary student brought a squirt gun to school, that would not fit that section. We use common sense in all of our cases so we would not overreact. The recommendation came from our state authors; that’s why we brought that change to our policy.”

For the future, the school board is contemplating a visitor management system to identify sex offenders, parents without custody or specific, unwanted visitors at the school’s doorstep and send them walking away.

The school board has $106,000 designated for future security measures. One proposal has been to purchase visitor management software from a State College-based school security company that allows visitors’ identification to be checked against the Megan’s Law database and local databases to keep students safe from familial abductions, for example.

The company, School Gate Guardian, has presented the board with a demonstration of the technology.

Local databases can be generated by entering information from documents including protection-from-abuse orders or any brief description that helps identify visitors. The system would also allow users to send an instant text message to principals or police officers if an unwanted visitor becomes defiant.

The total price to install and maintain the system would be $4,285.

“The safety and welfare of our students and employees is very important in light of recent atrocities,” Foreman said. “We are fortunate to have the resources we have.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.