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Dec. 15—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Robert Gleason, president of the Westmont Hilltop School Board, said the district will hire a school police officer as soon as possible, by the end of January, after two teens were arrested and accused of plotting a school shooting.
"We've been very selective in what we want to do and now we're going to double down and make this happen," he said.
Westmont has discussed the option of a school resource officer and now a school police officer for at least three years — going as far as approving a three-year contract with Upper Yoder Township for an SRO at an October 2020 meeting, then accepting a job description for an SPO at a December 2020 meeting.
Board members also discussed Upper Yoder police Chief Don Hess' proposal in March to serve as a substitute to the SPO.
That correspondence mentioned that no officer with the department was interested in pursuing SRO certification at that time — a necessary state requirement to be a school police officer.
Members of the board addressed the matter as recently as September in a safe schools committee meeting, according to school documents.
"We just haven't found the person that we want," Gleason said. "This is an important hire."
He also noted a shortage of police officers in the state.
Hiring an SPO has received increased attention after authorities stopped what they described as a school-shooting plot being concocted by Preston R. Hinebaugh and Logan J. Pringle.
Hinebaugh, 16, is a Westmont Hilltop student, and Pringle, 17, was expelled from the school in 2018 and is enrolled in Conemaugh Township Area School District, Superintendent Thomas "T.J." Kakabar confirmed.
Kakabar did not comment further about student disciplinary action, but said in general terms that when a student is charged with a felony or several, as is the case with these teenagers, "we would consider what the charges are and certainly work with our solicitor to determine if it was safe for their return, or if a placement in an alternative setting would be more appropriate."
Both teens are in custody and were moved from Cambria County Prison on Monday to another state facility with juvenile accommodations in order to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Gleason noted that although he couldn't comment on the number of applications the board has received for an SPO, it has not been many.
The difference between a school police officer and resource officer is that an SRO is employed by a municipality and an SPO is employed by the school district.
Westmont was initially in favor of a resource officer, but decided late last year that the other option would suit the district better.
"The most important thing is, we wanted the person to be with us long-term and be part of the team," Gleason said.
He added that the officer has to be able to "develop a relationship with the student population and the parents and administration" and that the most important aspect of the job is building trust with the learners.
According to the approved job description, the person hired into this position would work full time and report to the school safety and security coordinator. At Westmont, that would be Superintendent Thomas Mitchell.
That individual would be responsible for "enforcing good order" in the district buildings, on the buses and on school grounds while building relationships with administrators, staff and area first responders, while also participating in board meetings, reviewing the safe schools report and providing recommendations.
To qualify, the candidate, who will work at both schools, must complete basic police training or graduate from the Pennsylvania State Police academy, been employed by that department and separated in good standing; complete the Basic School Resource Officer Course of Instruction by the National Association of School Resource Officers or an equivalent course; hold a bachelor's degree and/or 15 years of equivalent experience as well as at least three years of criminal justice work or related experience with school or industrial related security.
The position would pay in the $40,000 range per year and is fully funded already, Gleason said.
'Strong sense of justice'
Westmont sophomore Sydney Mize created a petition on change.org to draw more attention to the issue. The petition had garnered nearly 1,900 signatures as of Tuesday.
Her parents are happy about her participation.
"We are very proud of Sydney," her father, John Mize, said. "She has always had a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and she wants to be instrumental in fixing this oversight by the WHSD school board."
John Mize added that he agrees with his daughter and the others who've signed the online document about the need for an SRO or SPO in the district.
"My niece and nephew, and our community of children, deserve this protection, at the bare minimum," Billie Whorl wrote on the petition. "A SRO is a start. Westmont needs to also address the glass doors in each classroom and a metal detector. This was a blaring wake up call."
"If this district can spend over $8 million on a brand new football field, it certainly has the funds for a SRO and metal detectors," Kristen Snider added to her signature. "The WH School Board has an obligation to our children and our community to re-prioritize."
"It is time WHSD look for a full-time SPO," Malika Karunaratne wrote. "Please fill the SPO position school board voted on 12/03/2020 immediately. Thank you to Chief (Don) Hess for stepping up to supplement the district's safety needs."
Upon hearing the news about the security breach at the school and subsequent findings by police, John Mize said he "had visions of my kids cowering in class — or worse, attending their funerals."
"I am the pastor of Westmont (United Methodist Church) and I could have easily been presiding over funerals or providing grief counseling," he said.
Mize said the community needs to band together to "stand up and make sure the schools board acts."
He said: "Even the slightest hesitation on their part should be reflected in votes against them in the next election."
Gleason said the school district and board aren't "resting on any laurels," although he is pleased with how the system worked in this situation.
Until an SPO can be hired, the district has worked out a deal to pay Upper Yoder Township police to staff an officer at the high school until at least Dec. 23, when the holiday break begins, and is in talks to continue that service after the students come back or they bring an SPO on.
West Hills police are also providing increased surveillance at the elementary school, Gleason said.
Westmont school district has a $14,000-per-year contract through 2023 with Gittings Protective Security Inc., of Ebensburg, for threat preparedness consulting services.
Vince Mock, a threat preparedness consultant with the company, said what the agency does is "work with the district to develop emergency operations, ongoing training and help them develop threat assessment teams, and we conduct risk and vulnerability assessments of their building."
There's a risk and vulnerability assessment done once every two years and ongoing training.
A Gittings representative attends the safe school committee meetings, and district officials can call with any questions.
Mock couldn't comment on how Pringle breached security with Hinebaugh's help, but said in his opinion, administrators acted appropriately in response.
The Westmont school board held an executive session for personnel matters on Monday — a session that lasted about 45 minutes, Gleason said.
The next committee meeting will be Jan. 13 and the regular meeting is set for Jan. 20, both at the high school.
No special meetings are planned for before those gatherings.