WALLENPAUPACK - There was a time when people didn't need to be buzzed into a school, and there weren't public address systems to give direction in case of emergencies. Today though, as a precaution of ever having to respond to gun wielding persons, Wallenpaupack School Administrators have taken the basic precautions a step further and as of the start of the school year, four Security Resource Officers (SRO) have been stationed at the schools in the district.
The officers started the job with extensive experience, as three of the SROs are retired Pennsylvania State Police and one is a Hawley Borough Police Officer. Thus far, High School Principal Dr. Jay Starnes said the officers' presence has been "very positive." Initially, he said there was a little apprehension in understanding what the officers' roles in the schools were, but as the year has gone on, students and parents have accepted them.
Coming from the, "world of law enforcement," the Director of School Security, John Clader said so far it has been a, "learning experience," because of the differences in the two jobs. He explained that, as an SRO, his job is about relationship building with students and listening to them, while as a state trooper, it was very hands-on and about getting the job done. The goal of this job, he said is to, "alleviate the problem first and work from that." More than a Director of Security, Clader also considers himself to be the director of safety too.
Although their job is about ensuring the school is safe, Superintendent Michael Silsby said because the officers are working with different aged children, some things that they do at the schools differ. Going into the classrooms as guest speakers, Officer Aaron Bertholf will talk to the younger students about bike safety and walking to and from school, while Officer Eric Halas will speak to older students about computer safety. Middle School Assistant Principal Bill Theobald said, the officers are giving the students an idea of what is going on in the world and what potential consequences may come from their actions. The kids have been interested he said, because its, "so real world."
It is the officers' specialized experience though; Starnes said, that gives them the ability to connect with the kids who are interested in specific topics. He added that, a police officer talking with students is different than a teacher because the experience is diverse.
The officers' persona, Silsby said, is important because kids need to be comfortable approaching the officers. Clader said it does appear as though students are comfortable with him, as they call him everything from Chief, Director to Mr. C. Following the recent shooting at a Navy Yard in D.C., Silsby said students asked the SROs questions because they are curious if such instances could occur at their school.
Looking at the relationships that are being built, Theobald said the students are talking to the officers, with SRO Eric Halas sitting with the students at lunch. As he has been interacting with the kids, Theobald said the kids have responded well and Halas has become somewhat of a celebrity in the school.
North Primary School Principal, Tony Cavallaro said there is a special level of respect happening with the kids and officers. They respect Officer Bertholf, he said because of the way he works with them. He explained that Officer Bertholf isn't hard, but he isn't soft either, instead he, "commands respect because he is a police officer." Silsby added that by having the officers in the classroom at an early age, the kids are learning that law enforcement are good people. Because kids don't always get to talk with police officers, Clader said the SROs are giving the kids an opportunity to realize that police officers are people too. There was a time, Clader said, that he was a kid and so he understands how important school activities are to them and because of that, he makes a point to talk with them just about the activities they're involved in.
Before classes started, the SROs worked with teachers to practice some real life scenarios. Clader said that training was important because he saw things from a teacher's point of view. Through the training, he realized that there are things he would have done differently as a police officer, but he said because the teachers explained their actions, it was like, "learning from the experts."
At the North Primary's October PTA meeting, Cavallero said two of the SROs will be present. The officers, he said, give a "sense of security," that people seem to appreciate.
From the Columbine shootings in 1998 to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Silsby said following each shooting, parents called, asking how the district was protecting their children. His response, was that the staff tried to make the school as safe as possible, but there is never a 100 percent guarantee. It was the parents asking about security guards though, that played a large part in the district reevaluating everything, he said. So far, Silsby has not received any negative feedback about the SROs. But Starnes added that there has been, "a lot of curiosity."
Clader said he wants Wallenpaupack's SRO program to be the best of the best, where other schools are looking to the district for assistance with their own programs. Silsby added that the district wants the program to continue evolving and as part of this, substitute SROs have been hired. As part of the evolution, an active shooter drill for the staff will occur October 11th with the SROs and state police. And, in November, a few of the administrators will attend a few conferences that focus on school security and issues.
Although the district cannot guarantee that people will be 100 percent safe, Silsby said it is the districts goal to, "be as close to that as possible and to be as proactive as possible."