McKeesport Area Considering School Police Department

By Richard Finch Jr. | Posted in: News

McKeesport Area School District will consider creation of its own police department.

At October's meeting, the school board authorized the administration to investigate and see if creation of the district-run police department is feasible.

Several school districts, including South Allegheny and Pittsburgh Public Schools, have their own police officers. McKeesport Area School District currently pays for a school resource officer from the City of McKeesport police. That SRO divides their time between the high school and the middle school.

Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. said determining whether a school police department makes sense financially depends on whether grant funding is available to significantly offset the costs associated with the plan.

“We hire a lot of extra security for ball games and things of that nature and it becomes a huge expense for us,” he said in an interview. Having an in-house police department “would probably save us a little bit of money, along with continuing to utilize our local departments for extra support,” Holtzman said.

Above: South Allegheny is among the area school districts that have established in-house school police departments.

In addition to the city-employed school resource officer, McKeesport Area has a contract with Public Safety Security, co-owned by Joe Gajdos, to provide unarmed security guards during the school day and at events.

Holtzman said the district previously had an additional city police officer on duty until the position was eliminated due to financial constraints. “For us to kind of look at doing something here internally, in the district, it’s going to depend on the safety grant (application) that we just recently wrote for a significant amount of money,” he said.

McKeesport Area has been successful in recent grant applications for school safety projects.

In October, McKeesport Area was one of several local school districts, including Clairton, Duquesne, East Allegheny, South Allegheny, West Mifflin, Woodland Hills and West Jefferson Hills, that each received a $25,000 grant from the state Department of Education to study the safety and security of their school buildings and recommend improvements.

The grants were announced by state Sen. Jim Brewster and were made available under the auspices of the state's School Safety and Security Committee. Brewster championed the creation of that committee and serves as a member.

“This funding will help establish safety programs, hire additional security personnel and purchase security-related equipment,” Brewster said.

McKeesport Area also received $20,000 to establish a violence-prevention program.

Holtzman said the district is looking at ways to be more efficient with the resources available and to continue to create the safest environment possible for students, teachers and staff.

In light of the mass shooting Oct. 27 at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill and other attacks across the United States, he said, “it’s something that we need to strongly consider.”

However, Holtzman said, he doesn't feel that McKeesport Area schools are unsafe.

“It’s what happens in the outside world that could come into our schools that heightens everybody’s awareness, like the recent tragedy,” he said.

Many details would need to be worked out, Holtzman said, including who would supervise the officers, the number of officers hired, and the salaries offered.

Additionally, if a school police department was created, the district’s agreement with the city would have to be amended or possibly canceled. “These are just conversations,” he said. “I think the school board is excited about (the idea of) having its own police department here.”

Holtzman said the district would want to hire local candidates.

“We will look at retired state troopers, military and local police, we would like to have somebody that has some familiarity with our community and our kids, and that we have relationships with, so that we could be the most effective, right off the bat --- that's my hope.” he said.

“We’re willing to take the best candidates that we would consider, but if it had to be somebody from the outside we would vet those candidates to find the best ones possible,” Holtzman said.

The district would officers who would be "part of the school culture," he said. “We would not want somebody who is uncomfortable, who would make the students uncomfortable," Holtzman said. The district would want candidates who can "fit in and be a part of what goes on in our school.”

Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at Jason Togyer, editor of Tube City Almanac, contributed to this story.

Originally published November 08, 2018.

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