The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 10, 2013

Safety measures: Area school districts turn to resource officers

Patrick Buchnowski

JOHNSTOWN — Chad Miller said he is ready to take a bullet to saves the lives of students and teachers.

A school resource officer at Greater Johnstown High School since 2007, Miller said his job is to stop any gunman who threatens anyone on school grounds.

“That’s why I wear a uniform every day,” Miller said.

“That’s why I wear a (bulletproof) vest.

“When there is an active shooter, we’re the first line of defense,” he said. “It’s my job to stand in front of that bullet.”

Since the December shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many school districts are rethinking school security.

As Congress scrambles to find money to hire more police, school districts are gradually placing police in the schools.

Across Pennsylvania, police officers have reported carrying weapons while working in at least 113 school districts, five vocational-technical schools and two charter schools, one alternative school and one intermediate, according to The Associated Press.

Locally, the Windber Area School District recently added a school resource officer. The school board approved the move in January, a move that is expected to add about $20,000 to the district payroll.

“The board showed it wasn’t putting financial concerns above student safety,” schools Superintendent Rick Huffman said after the vote.

Somerset Borough Council voted last month to make a school resource officer available to the Somerset Area School District at $32 per hour.

“We had one (officer) several years ago,” Borough Manager Benedict G. Vinzani Jr. said. “It’s been resurrected with the events at Sandy Hook.”

Greater Johnstown School District has had police in the middle school and high school for more than a decade. Don Hess is currently the school resource officer for the middle school.

The impact of police in the schools is far reaching, Johnstown schools Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak said. It’s not just about safety.

It’s about building relationships between police and kids, Zahorchak said.

“When you started building relationships in the schools in a positive way, it does a lot for the school and community,” Zahorchak said. “They see the police as members of the community who protect and serve.”

More school districts are talking about placing police in schools, but without adequate funding some can’t do it.

Schools Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli said the Portage Area School District is looking for money to help pay the estimated cost of $60,000 that is needed to hire one full-time officer.

“Unless we’re funded, it won’t happen,” he said.

Not only is finding money a problem, but finding the right person for the job is a priority.

“We don’t want a Joe Blow off the streets,” said Vincent DiLeo, Central Cambria schools superintendent.

“We need the right combination of who we bring in, for how much and for how long,” he said.

Meanwhile, Miller, 35, walks the halls of Greater Johnstown High School.

He, too, understands the importance of finding the most qualified officer. He is certified through the National Association of School Resource Officers and trained in crises management and mental health issues.

“You don’t want a retired cop who is not active, who just wants to come in and watch TV and drink coffee,” he said.

Bonding with young people is a must, he said.

“You have kids who don’t trust you and kids who hate cops,” Miller said. “You have to love working with young people and understand where they’re coming from.”

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