Armed officers are a welcome sight for most Plum School District community members
Armed retired police officers have patrolled Plum schools for the past few months, and many students and parents believe their district is safer for it.
“I have kids at Center and Holiday Park (elementary schools),” said parent Rebecca Wawrzyniak. “My children have both said they feel safe at school now. They know what has happened at other schools. I trust the district is doing everything it can to keep our children safe.”
The district formed its own police force last year that is led by retired McKeesport Capt. of Detectives Tim Hanna.
He and two retired New Kensington officers, Joe Locke and Craig Harnish, make up the department so far.
Hanna is stationed at the high school and splits time at the other facilities. Locke checks in on Oblock Junior High and Holiday Park Elementary while Harnish can be seen at Center and Pivik elementary schools.
The officers wear black-collared shirts with their names and title on the right side of their chest.
They’re also assisted by a school resource officer provided by Plum police department.
District officials plan to hire three more officers by the end of the month so all schools have at least one armed officer.
All district police are expected to become certified school resource officers by mid-June.
Center Elementary second-grader Zoey Knight, 10, said she sees Harnish every day.
“I like how they walk around and make sure everybody’s safe,” she said. “He pops in and says, ‘Hi.’”
Center kindergartner Isaac Kirchner, 5, said the same thing while talking about dragons in teacher Kirstin Vinton’s class.
“He’s a friendly face and they know he’s here to help them,” Vinton said about Harnish. “He and I have talked about what safety precautions I can put in my room. It’s been more of a resource to make it a safer place if the unimaginable every happens.”
Reason for district police
The district police force was not established based on any particular Plum incident, but a proactive approach to prevent tragedy after the mass shootings around the country the past few years.
“They are trained and prepared to be armed, and I much rather them be armed and never need their firearm over the alternative of them being unable to stop an active shooter and a child is hurt,” said John Hanscom, who has young boys at Holiday Park and Center.
The officers provided active shooter training and enhanced lockdown drills as part of high school safety efforts.
“I feel it’s sad that we live in a time and age where that’s necessary, but I do feel it is necessary,” said Jonah Babusci, senior and school board representative. “They’re always friendly. They stand in the hallway and have offices where they talk with troubled students sometimes.”
Officers said being present, accessible and having good student relationships can make a world of difference in a school district.
Harnish said he treats each student like part of his family. He has three kids, two step-children and nine grandchildren.
“I know that if it was my kids that were in here, how I would want the police officers to act and what their responsibilities were,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to live up to.”
The officers also come up with different initiatives to help improve Plum’s already robust security programs.
Locke introduced a public service announcement contest for students to educate them about the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes.
The district has policies that prohibits students from having such devices.
“Being positive role models to the kids is something that we enjoy,” Locke said. “Making sure they feel comfortable with us and feel safe at the schools.”
Superintendent Brendan Hyland credited board Vice President Vicky Roessler as the staunchest advocate for the police force, and the officers have become a significant part of the district family.
“In a very short amount of time, they’re being woven into the fabric of our community,” Hyland said.
Other safety matters
Acquiring Armed officers is just one of many safety changes at the district in recent months.
All staffers are required to wear badges to better identify themselves and help track who’s in and out of buildings.
School board members authorized upgraded fencing and bollards (posts) to be installed at all their schools.
Plum incorporated Safe 2 Say Something, a hotline where students and adults can submit anonymous tips about something suspicious online or from a person who may pose a threat to themselves or others. It was introduced across the state and headed by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. The district already had its own tipline.
A $200,000+ borough donation allowed the district to purchase various upgrades such as software and an internal alert system called Alertus. It sends messages to all district devices.
Rich Walsh, district safety coordinator and assistant superintendent, said all that just scratches the surface of upgrades outlined in a facility safety and security assessment completed last year by California-based Bay Area Risk Management.
There are ongoing policy reviews and other programs behind the scenes that district officials declined to discuss due to safety concerns.
“We really increased our (security) practice in all our buildings,” he said. “It’s really focusing on the whole child.”
Plum also became the first busing district in the nation to complete a four-part TSA training program .
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.