BASD officials pass resolution on I-80/I-99

Board members talk highway, school safety

BELLEFONTE — The Bellefonte Area School District Board of Directors are working to ensure that the I-80 and I-99 interchange project finally gets off the ground.

During their Tuesday, Nov. 21 meeting, board members unanimously voted to approve a resolution that supports the project and strongly urges lawmakers to gain funding for the project.

The project, which will create a local access interchange and a high-speed interchange at the interstates’ crossroads, will cost a total of $183.4 million. On Nov. 2, PennDOT submitted a request of $43.1 million to the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program.

The district is in strong support of the project for the safety of its staff and students. There have been some close calls at the intersection, and as board member Robert Pacella brought up at the previous meeting, there was an incident involving a school bus a few years ago.

Currently, six district buses use the interchange, buses which transport 278 students, 261 of which are secondary and 17 of which are elementary students, according to the resolution. The interchange poses a safety risk due to the short ramp that comes off I-80 going westbound, a ramp which is made worse by a sharp curve and a T-intersection with Route 26 that has non-ideal sight lines. There is also heavy traffic congestion that exceeds the ramp’s capacity, with traffic being backed up for more than a mile at times during peak traffic hours.

This creates a very dangerous situation, said board member Jon Guizar.

“I hope that they can move it along quickly,” he said. “I know that it has been in the works for many, many years. I don’t know what happened in the past that it continued to take a back burner to other projects.”

In other business, the school district is looking into increasing safety through various applications.

One is a smartphone application called SchoolGuard.

SchoolGuard allows all faculty and staff members who choose to download the application on their phones the ability to immediately notify law enforcement of incidents, which will decrease response time. Bellefonte, along with Bald Eagle and Penns Valley area school districts and Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology, is looking at implementation of the app. Superintendent of Schools Michelle Saylor said administration met with local and state law enforcement last week to discuss the value and logistics of the app.

The app has a lot of benefits, she said.

Should a violent incident take place in the district, teachers will be able to simply push a button from their smartphone and any law enforcement in the vicinity with the Hero911 app on their phone will be able to respond to the situation.

“When they did the study with Sandy Hook, they found that had they been able to have this app at that point in time, there would have been significant decrease in response time and it would have saved probably 11 lives,” Saylor said.

The app also allows faculty and staff who may find themselves in a challenging situation, such as a fight, to notify other faculty and staff in the building. Saylor said there is also an option in the app that allows administration to push out critical information without needing to access a computer or the public announcement system.

To prevent accidental activation of the app, SchoolGuard will have geofences, defined digital geographic areas, set up around each school building so that the app cannot be activated outside of the geofences. Saylor said she has negotiated a rate of $1,000 per geofence for each school building, and there will be a $99 monthly geofence maintenance cost, which may be lowered. For one of the geofences, the setup and maintenance fee has already been waived.

Once an agreement is drafted to implement use of the app, it will be brought forward to the school board for approval.

Two other applications the district is exploring are Gaggle and Secure Link.

These applications help monitor threats of suicide and mental health issues. They do this through the monitoring of students’ social media accounts that are associated with school emails, and an algorithm looks for indicators of depression, suicide, or other “red flags.” This will allow teachers to assist students in need, Saylor said.

In talks with regional superintendents who have looked at the apps, Saylor said that a district about 45 minutes away shared that a suicide took place there about a year to a year and a half ago.

“After the fact, they got their hands on one of these applications and fed in the information of that student just to see what would happen. And had this application been available at that time and had its algorithms been working, it would have saved the life of the student.”

If the district decides to go with one of the safety management applications, it will be brought forward for approval at a future board meeting.