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The main entrance to the Westmont Hilltop Junior-Senior High School on Dec. 14, 2021.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Westmont Hilltop School District parents lined up at the end of Thursday’s school board meeting to raise concerns they have with the board and administration’s approach to safety – particularly, the choice to hire a school police officer instead of a school resource officer.

“Some parents want to know why we’re looking at a school police officer instead of what most schools do, which is hire a resource officer,” parent Jason Ward said. “In three minutes I can’t tell you all the benefits that a resource officer would bring over a school police officer.”

He spoke on behalf of a group of parents and community members and provided a brief background of the two positions and the difference between them – that being an SRO works through a police department and an SPO is employed by the school.

Roughly nine parents took turns talking about safety and the recent security breach that resulted in police alleging a school shooting plot was being planned by Westmont student Preston R. Hinebaugh and Conemaugh Township Area learner Logan J. Pringle.

They questioned the district’s communication methods with parents, why the schools weren’t locked down when the breach in December occurred, why two officers – one for each building – aren’t being hired and why the process isn’t more transparent.

As each stood in front of the board, more than a dozen other parents listened, and after some comments, provided an ovation.

One parent, Brett Hinterliter, told the board that the system failed in this instance and questioned why school officials were saying otherwise.

“You were a heartbeat away from a shooting up here – a massacre,” parent Dan Fregly said.

Don Hess, Upper Yoder Township police chief, also spoke at the meeting from the perspective of an officer and a parent.

He encouraged the board to consider hiring two officers instead of one, that way the high school and elementary could be staffed.

“We need a trained professional, armed, at both buildings,” Hess said.

He noted multiple times that he was in no way trying to benefit the department he works for but rather was just concerned with student safety.

Josh Fosbrink, another parent who spoke through the Zoom call, supported Hess’ suggestion.

At one point, board Vice President Rebecca Webb, who was running the meeting because President Robert Gleason was participating via Zoom, attempted to move on from public comment at Gleason’s direction.

That action was met with outrage from the parents who wanted more time to speak on the matter and were ultimately allowed to do so.

After the meeting, Ward said he thinks the decision to hire an SPO is an attempt to increase the administration’s power.

He’s also disappointed in how the situation has been handled thus far.

“I think that the response has shown that safety is not the No. 1 concern,” Ward said.

After the meeting, Gleason, Webb and Superintendent Thomas Mitchell provided the opposite assessment.

“We are focused on student safety and work with our local partners to find the best solutions,” Mitchell said.

Webb agreed, pointing to implementation of the safe schools committee four years ago and the accomplishments since then.

“We have been addressing a lot of the issues and will continue to do so,” she said.

Moving forward, the district will continue to aim to hire a school police officer.

Gleason reiterated that Westmont prefers an SPO because that individual will be employed by the school and not an outside agency.

“We feel very comfortable moving forward with the school police officer,” he said.

Gleason also said the plan to hire one person to cover both buildings remains unchanged.

“We just do not feel that that is necessary,” Gleason said of hiring two officers.

He added that no one at Westmont wants the students to be afraid to go to school and that the district takes security seriously.

In a related matter, the Westmont board unanimously approved the Center for Safe Schools to perform a behavioral health and climate evaluation, not to exceed $3,500, of the elementary and high school.

Jeff Masterson, chairman of the safe schools committee, said after the meeting that this will be an evaluation of the students’ attitudes and is in response to the recent incident.

The recommendation to undergo the assessment came from the administration, he added.

Masterson expects there to be recommendations from the center that the board will have to follow up on. 

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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