Westmont Hilltop leaders continue to update security approach

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Sep. 10—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Westmont Hilltop School District Superintendent Thomas Mitchell reported on Tuesday that the district is continuing to take steps necessary to provide students with secure learning facilities.

"We've done a lot of work," he said after the district's public biannual safe schools committee meeting.

In addition to hiring another school police officer and contracting Gittings Protective Security to provide guards — who will also help with crosswalks at the elementary school — Westmont Hilltop school leaders said they have put the district's cumulative $246,430 Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency grant funding to good use. This money is provided through the state budget.

Mitchell said the district is focusing on addressing not only safety and security, but also mental health of students.

That's done through the school board's safe schools committee, which itself has subcommittees — one for protection, which examines matters of security, and the other for prevention, which highlights beneficial programs.

William Aurandt, assistant high school principal and committee member, said an example of improvements to mental health areas is the doubling of student support staff at the high school in the past two years. This includes another full-time social worker and a second school counselor in addition to a college and career counselor.

"That's grown our team and made more resources for our students that have social- emotional needs," Aurandt said.

Another addition under this category is the Rachel's Challenge Club, which will be started this month. According to the group's website, its goal is to address "the root causes of school violence, bullying, prejudice, and self-harm through social-emotional learning programs that build connection, hope and resilience."

"We improve school culture so that students are able to reach their full potential academically, socially and emotionally," the website says.

Faculty at the high school will be introduced to the programming on Sept. 26, followed by student and community presentations the next day. Aurandt said 100 learners from existing clubs will be shown the material and encouraged to find projects they connect to and engage with.

The idea is to build a sense of community in the school, which Mitchell said is the best defense against possible tragedy.

Westmont Hilltop High School is also now a trauma-informed school.

As for the security aspect, Mitchell said the district will hire additional part-time school police officers to serve in supplemental positions. He provided the example of parent-teacher nights or other events in which the community is in the buildings and it would be beneficial to have extra security on hand.

Those officers will also work on confirming student residency, an issue Mitchell said is continuously prevalent at Westmont.

Other implementations that are new this school year include dedicated time for teachers to get to know their students. High school educators will have 10 minutes per class to become more acquainted with the learners, and elementary teachers will have dedicated time in the mornings for the same reason.

The district leaders said taking time to connect with learners was something everyone wanted to happen, but just needed time to do.