‘School safety is always evolving’ at Westmont Hilltop

Mar. 4—Westmont Hilltop High School students are greeted each morning at the door by the school police officer or security guards, an administrator and a school counselor.

Students are asked to remove hats and hoods as they enter the building, and if a student is noticed acting out of character, educators are quick to check in and make sure everything is OK. Procedures at the elementary school are similar.

The district’s security measures include hundreds of cameras, visitor screenings and numerous mental health supports for students.

“School safety is always evolving,” Superintendent Thomas Mitchell said. “We’re always learning.”

Westmont Hilltop has been scrutinized after a 14-year-old girl allegedly left a threatening note at the high school on Jan. 30, then allegedly left another note and broke a window at the elementary school before being arrested early Feb. 6. That broken window was replaced the same morning, officials said.

Since then, some parents have voiced concerns to the school board about transparency and safety.

After each incident, district and law enforcement officials cited juvenile law and the ongoing investigation as reasons why they could not reveal more information to the public about what happened — although school board members aim to improve in that area.

What has been discovered is that police audio logs indicate the suspect had a firearm when she was apprehended Feb. 6.

School officials say they are always working to improve security measures moving forward.

“We do a lot,” Mitchell said. “We’re constantly working on both sides of the house on this.”

Mitchell said security cameras are regularly updated. The district has a total of 260 rooms at its two school buildings, inside and outside. For example, the camera that produced a zoomed-in, cropped and grainy image of the suspect in the threat case on Jan. 30 has already been replaced with a better model.

“We do our best to make sure everyone is safe and secure,” said the district’s school police officer, Jason Hunter, who was hired in August. “We’re doing very well.”

Hunter has 35 years of experience in law enforcement and spent much of his career with the police department in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County. Compared to his past police work, including a stint as a detective in the Somerset County District Attorney’s Office, he said, working with students in a school is a different but positive experience.

“It’s always something new,” Hunter said. “It helps being a parent and a grandparent.”

He added that he knows the school police officer at Conemaugh Township Area School District and the school resource officer at Windber Area School District, and the trio often discuss the ins and outs of their positions.

Westmont Hilltop secured a more than $240,000 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) grant in the fall and landed its second state Safe Schools grant for a school police officer in February. Those allotments are in addition to other security grants received in the past.

What resulted in the first grant was the district’s many behavioral and physical baseline security criteria that meet the PCCD’s Tier Three standards for best practices, Mitchell said, such as using school climate survey data to guide policies, implementing bullying prevention and involving local police in the district.

With that funding, administrators also plan to install alarms on exterior doors at both school buildings and magnetic access points on interior doors, including between the gymnasium and Knowledge Commons at the high school, so that “pods” can be created in emergencies and access to parts of the schools can be restricted during extracurricular activities.

Some of the money will go towards mental health supports, which are broken into three tiers.

The first tier is “universal” and impacts nearly all students at the high school, who have access to the Sandy Hook Promise programming, which includes “Start with Hello” for seventh-graders and “Say Something” for sophomores; the prevention program Botvin Life Skills; suicide prevention events; and Safe2Say assemblies and the Rachel’s Challenge FOR club for students in seventh through 12th grades.

During odd school years, students in each high school grade take the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, a universal behavioral health screener and trauma-skilled lessons.

The second tier of mental health support is designed for at-risk students and includes the recently approved prevention-based Blues Program, the Healing Patch grief and loss group, and programs from Victim Services Inc.

The third tier includes targeted and intensive interventions for “high-risk students” that range from Alternative Community Resource Program outpatient counseling, the new REACH/RISE counselor, trauma counseling with Victim Services and other impact-based outpatient counseling.

Westmont Hilltop employs five full-time school counselors between both buildings, plus two social workers who are available for students.

As for physical security, all outside doors are locked after the beginning of the day and periodically checked by staff to ensure there’s been no illegal entry.

Other safety measures include mesh overlays on classroom door windows that obscure views inside, and all glass in the district is shatterproof.

There are identification-checking devices in the foyer of each building into which guests have to place their driver’s licenses during every visit to the schools.

The district also employs a full-time school police officer, Hunter, and two part-time school police officers, and it contracts with Gittings Protective Security Inc. for several services.

In total, Westmont spent roughly $800,000 in the past year on security and mental health, Mitchell said.

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