Few attend school safety session

‘See something, say something’ draws about 20 parents

Altoona Area security and administrators assured parents Thursday that the district’s security is improving and urged parents to call them directly if they learn about a possible school threat.

About 20 parents attended a “see something, say something” session at the Altoona Area Senior High School. It was sadly a scarce crowd, said one of the parents in the room, Gena Strawmire.

“Parents are the No. 1 entity in children’s lives, and they aren’t here,” she said.

The session was arranged on the heels of a Snapchat threat of a school shooting made Saturday that was investigated within the Altoona Area community.

A student at the session Thursday lauded the district for the visible changes made to security in the days since that threat.

“Most of my friends noticed the stuff going on; we are happy it’s happening,” said Michael Vaughn, 17.

District Police Services Director Bill Pfeffer and school administrators urged parents to work with school officials to keep schools safe by monitoring their children’s social media accounts.

And if parents are already on social media, Pfeffer advised them to call police or school officials instead of posting on Facebook when they hear of a threat.

“This is your town and your community. Our kids and our future, and without you and us working together, none of us will be successful,” Pfeffer said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly half of those who commit homicide at a school give some type of warning signal, such as making a threat or leaving a note, prior to the event.

In Parkland, Fla., where Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff at a school, the teenager posted violent social media posts, but the FBI failed to investigate.

Altoona Area’s contract with a national safe schools hotline is currently in effect, but Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said calling school officials directly is the best course of action.

“If you are willing to contact us directly, that is the most efficient way,” he said.

The administrators discussed new security measures that have been implemented.

“We are getting better,” Pfeffer said. “But can we improve? Always.”

One entrance for all visitors has been established, and all visitors walk through a metal detector.

However, students do not go through a metal detector when they enter.

“I wish we had resource officers to get everyone through, but we don’t,” High School Principal Andrew Neely said. “We are not set up to get all 1,700 students through a metal detector. If that was part of our process, we’d have to start school later because it takes a long time.”

Previously, students could go outside to walk to classes in other buildings, now only Greater Altoona Career and Technical Center students are allowed to exit the high school complex. And when they return, they re-enter through a secure, visitor entrance. However, they do not go through the metal detector as visitors do, Neely said.

The district has five armed officers to cover all of its buildings, Pfeffer said.

Parent Pamela Hann broached the national debate over arming teachers. She asked whether the district would consider that.

She was glad to hear Neely say he has some problems with that idea.

“It’s a conversation to have. … Quick response is critical, but having teachers carry guns bothers me because of the message it sends,” Neely said.

Hatch addressed some questions that he gets often; one of the biggest complaints he gets from parents is about the district’s strict no cellphone policy.

He explained that in an emergency situation, if all students start using their phones, then the district’s communication system would likely be overloaded and prevent school faculty and staff from communicating with first responders.

Hatch assured parents that the district has protocols for “every situation.”

Designated reunification sites after an evacuation, prep bags with supplies and phone apps for student accountability were some examples he gave.

The district held a “see something, say something” session at the junior high school. That meeting was also poorly attended, Pfeffer said. He added that he believes the sessions are worthwhile and plans sessions for elementary school parents next.

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