Students report feeling secure

Despite shootings, threats, area youth still feel protected

PORTAGE — Despite school shootings and threats trending upward, students in several local school districts said they still feel safe in school.

But the possibility of an active shooter happening at any second still lingers in the back of their minds.

“Everyone has to be alert now,” Portage Area student Emma Kissell said. “Something like that could happen at any time.”

Student Paul Simala said: “We know there’s still a chance that something could happen.”

Since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead and several others wounded, numerous threats have been made against school districts across the nation and in the immediate area.

A 13-year-old student from Penn Cambria School District faces criminal charges of disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats after he made threatening comments to a middle-school staff member last Wednesday.

In the surrounding areas, two separate threats were found for schools in Somerset County.

Reports from the state police also found that a threat was made last month by a student from Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High School in Centre County.

Although threats have become more common in the area, students said trust is being placed in school administrators to keep everyone safe.

“I think our district would do whatever it takes to protect us,” Portage Area 10th-grader Stephen Vivis said.

Students from Nicole Hunt’s psychology class at the Portage Area Junior and Senior High School recently surveyed students throughout the school asking if they feel safe while in school.

Of those students surveyed, 85 percent said they feel safe.

“We found that many of the lower-level grades did not feel as secure as the upper-level students did,” Hunt said.

Hunt said because of the developmental stages that a student in junior high experiences, many students have not achieved a “sense of belonging,” which could attribute to them not feeling as secure.

The district has attempted to make students feel much more secure about themselves, and as school dismisses every day, teachers make sure to chat with students and promote healthy conversation.

“We definitely try to make our students feel like they’re part of a big family,” Hunt said. “We don’t want anyone to ever feel alone.”

Of the students who felt safe in school, many said that preventative actions taken by the district is what makes them feel safe.

“I think our school does a lot of things to make sure nothing will happen to us,” Lakin Phillips, a Portage Area 10th-grader, said. “It’s nice to know that the district is doing the best that they can.”

Last week, students and faculty of the Portage Area Junior and Senior High School participated in several drills as part of Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate trainings.

Principal Ralph Cecere began blowing an air horn around the hallways, simulating gun shots.

As students heard the air horn, the school immediately went into lockdown.

“We want our students to recognize what’s going on,” Cecere said of the lockdown drills.

A fire drill was also held in part with the lockdown drill, but teaching students how to save themselves from a possible fire was not the primary goal of the drill.

The Parkland, Florida, shooting began when 19-year-old Nikolas Jacob Cruz pulled the school’s fire alarm to draw students out from classrooms and into gunfire.

Cecere said that through the ALICE trainings, he wants to keep students more aware of their surroundings and to always be on the lookout of anything suspicious.

“Students used to mess around and not take a fire drill seriously,” Cecere said. “When I pulled the fire alarm (during the ALICE training), students were being much more cautious before they exited the room. … We want them to be aware of their surroundings. You never know when something could happen.”

Cecere said that while the ALICE trainings will help keep the students protected, he found that the drills have also increased the students sense of security.

“The ALICE trainings have definitely made me feel safer,” Portage Area senior Harley Crum said.

Students from the Cambria Heights School District also claimed to feel safe at school.

“I feel safe here,” student Alex Weakland said. “I’m not afraid of a shooting ever happening.”

The district was forced into a districtwide lockdown in December after receiving reports of an intruder barricading himself in an elementary school restroom.

The intruder was eventually found to be a student of the district going to the bathroom, and the student posed no threat.

The district found many flaws in its current security systems, which includes the lack of a resource officer, outdated surveillance cameras and unsecure entrances.

With the district currently looking to upgrade its security facilities, students in the district maintain that they do not feel any threat after recent events.

“If something did happen, I think our district would be able to handle it,” student Zack Westrick said. “I trust our district to keep us safe.”

Cambria Heights High School also completed a lockdown drill last week, and it will continue to hold a lockdown drill every month.

Much like students from the Portage Area School District, students from Cambria Heights cited constant drills as a sign of security.

“I feel much more safe after running drills like this,” Cambria Heights senior Morgan Shilling said. “It lets us know that our district is working as hard as it can to prevent something bad from happening to us.”

Students from both districts also said that there is a belief that a potential shooter is not as possible in smaller communities.

“This is a small area,” Portage Area student Emily Canavan said. “Everyone supports each other. I can’t see anyone in our community possibly doing something like that.”

School administrators agree.

“In an area like this, all of the students know each other,” Cambria Heights High School Principal Ken Kerchenske said. “Everyone is there for one another. … The goal is for nobody to be left behind.”

“Everyone in this community cares for one another,” Cecere said. “While (a mass shooting) is certainly possible in this area, I don’t really see it happening.”

Regardless of probability, both district’s will continue to hold trainings “just in case.”

“There’s always that chance that something could happen,” Cecere said. “We’re not going to take any chances.”