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McKeesport Area School District will hold a lockdown drill for all of its buildings on Tuesday morning to practice security protocols in the event of an emergency.
Parents are being encouraged to talk to their children before the event to avoid kids being alarmed or panicked, said Mark Holtzman Jr., district superintendent.
The drill was prompted in part by the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed and another 17 wounded, but McKeesport Area officials have "always been concerned about school security," Holtzman said.
Any parent who wants information about the lockdown drill is being asked to call Holtzman's office at (412) 664-3600 or email email@example.com.
The decision to hold the drill was prompted in part by discussions the district has had with first responders and public officials in McKeesport and White Oak, Holtzman said.
White Oak police Chief Mark Sargent said he's been in three meetings with school district officials so far, and has also attended a meeting at another area school district.
He said he appreciates McKeesport Area officials taking a pro-active approach. "Dr. Holtzman has been very hands-on," Sargent said. "There are a lot of things we talk back and forth about."
Overall, Sargent said, the district is conscientious, but "there are always areas for improvement," and some of those have already been discussed by local police and school officials, he said.
McKeesport Area schools have had campus security guards ever since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, Holtzman said.
The district contracts with a local company, Gaydos Security LLC, to provide officers in all of its buildings and at school events, he said.
In addition, a city police officer is stationed at the middle and high school campus during classes and activities, and the district has locked entrance doors with controlled access for visitors, video surveillance cameras and automatic alarms. There are metal detectors at the high school.
McKeesport and White Oak police have been trained to deal with so-called "active shooters" --- people using guns to kill many people, often indiscriminately, in a short period of time.
"But we want to look at any changes we need to make at any levels," Holtzman said. "We don't want to get too comfortable where we're at, and we also want to look at the big picture."
Holtzman, whose father was a McKeesport and Forward Twp. police officer, said he's tried to make sure local police are part of the school culture.
At Francis McClure school in White Oak, Sargent said, borough police officers conduct daily walk-throughs at different times and participate in activities at the school, including the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.
"We think it's important for students to have that familiarity with the police officers," Sargent said. "The students are used to seeing them there."
Every White Oak police officer takes turns visiting, so that students get to meet each of them, he said.
Both McKeesport and White Oak police also monitor social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, for threats and signs of trouble.
In the weeks ahead, Holtzman said, the district will be pursuing additional security, including magnetic locks for classroom doors, an electronic notification system for all laptop computers, desktops and mobile devices, and upgrades to existing exit doors.
The school district also is planning to add metal detectors at its elementary schools and to get emergency certification and education for all staff and students from the Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute.
ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, and was created by police and school officials in response to school shooting incidents, according to the group's website.
"We want to inform our students and also inform the conversations between teachers and students," Holtzman said. The ALICE training would provide education about how to respond, and what to do, in the event that a violent person entered a school building.
"Those kinds of things are important for adults to know, but we want to do a modified version of training for students as well," Holtzman said.
Additional security will come with a price, he warned.
"There are going to be costs, and we are going to have to make good decisions about managing the resources that we have," Holtzman said. Each walk-through metal detector costs $5,000 and up, and high-resolution security cameras cost $1,000 and up, he said. Replacing doors and windows also can be expensive.
But updating procedures, and providing resources such as electronic alerts to computers and mobile devices, are relatively inexpensive changes, Holtzman said.
Another change that could be expensive would be the addition of armed security guards to all school buildings, as state Sen. Jim Brewster recently proposed.
"I think (that) could be done in a practical way," Holtzman said. "Armed security is not necessarily a bad thing."
But, Holtzman said, he is skeptical of proposals --- such as those endorsed by President Trump and some activists --- to arm schoolteachers.
"I want our educators' top priority to be educating children," he said. "I don't want someone's 'side priority' to be carying a weapon on campus. I don't think arming all teachers could be done in any practical way."
Both Holtzman and Sargent voiced frustration over the need for accurate communication.
"Frankly, sometimes we have difficulty in how to get information out to parents," Sargent said.
Holtzman said social media have been both a blessing and a curse. "A lot of time, these 'conspiracy theories' pop up," he said, adding that district officials try to address social media rumors "immediately."
If there's one thing that parents need to know, Holtzman said, "it's that safety and security are our number one priorities, and (they) always will be."
Originally published March 21, 2018.