WINDBER — To a roomful of educators, police and local officials, Richland Township police Chief Mike Burgan said he has learned a frightening lesson on safety and “active shooters” in the community.
“I’m here to tell you that everybody gets the idea that that’s not going to happen here,” Burgan said.
That sense of security was shattered for him on Sept. 13, the day a Johnstown man drove to the police department and fired a round from a shotgun into a police cruiser, he said.
Burgan was among a group of expert panelists who spoke at a School and Community Safety Forum Thursday at Windber Research Institute. The forum was designed to offer proactive steps community members and educators can take in light of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.
Burgan emphasized the importance of schools and law enforcement working together to create location-specific plans for worst-case scenarios.
“We need to start working together. School collaboration is the most important thing,” he said. “We can’t have a cookie-cutter plan that works for every school. You have to adjust responses and safety plans to what each area is like.”
Later, during a question-and-answer session, Burgan said that the Pennsylvania State Police can perform a check of any school building to determine where security issues might arise. It was one of the steps he took to evaluate safety at the police department building after the incident in September, he added.
Mike Bookser from the Center for Schools and Communities offered ideas for making better emergency plans: gather perspectives from a multidisciplinary committee, keep the plan fluid and test it regularly through drills and exercises.
He also gave a list of reasons schools fail in an emergency, including not creating an “all-hazards” plan and not disseminating it to the people who need to know what to do should a security crisis or other emergency arise.
“In your building how are your people going to respond in the first few minutes if something does happen?” he asked the crowd. “What about in the hours that follow it? Do your people know what to do?”
Though school security and emergency response was one focus, speakers also addressed broader issues, such as bullying prevention and access to mental health resources. Staff at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Windber, along with the Alternative Community Resource Program, planned the event. Center director Dr. Matthew Masiello said there will be other such forums to keep the conversation going.
“We also hope what we are doing will serve as a model across the country,” he said.
The entire forum was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube by searching “Windber Research Institute” and “School and Community Safety.”
Masiello added that creating a more secure community will require the cooperation of professionals from many fields, from educators to health professionals to legislators.
“I think the common thread has to be making our schools and communities as safe as possible for our children,” Masiello said.