Allegheny IU Security Director Uses First Responder Background to Improve School Safety

Published: May 21, 2024Episode #93
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Nineteen years ago, Aaron Skrbin was unwittingly thrust into the role of school safety. During his second meeting as assistant principal at a Pennsylvania school district, Skrbin met with the superintendent (2:09).

“You’re a volunteer firefighter,” the superintendent noted as they took out a dusty binder containing the district’s emergency operations plan written following the 9/11 attacks. “You’re in charge of this now,” they said, handing Skrbin the binder.

“And that was the beginning of my journey in this work,” recalled Skrbin, a 2024 K-12 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist. “It just grew and changed over the years as events unfortunately occurred and brought greater focus onto school safety.”

Flash forward to today, Skrbin is now in his fifth year as the director of safety and security at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (3:00).

“As my interest in the work and passion for the work grew and training opportunities were afforded to me, I was very fortunate to be placed in a position where when the Allegheny Intermediate Unit decided that they were going to create this role, that I was uniquely positioned to fill what they were looking for, and that was someone who understood the world of both first responders and education,” he said. “Then from there, over the last five years, that growth has only continued, I think, and my passion for the work is as strong, if not stronger than it was when I began.”

With a first responder background, Skrbin was privy to the concept of mutual aid — a relatively newer concept for schools. Skrbin has used his dual first responder and school safety background to establish relationships between school leaders, first responders, and other community leaders (12:51).

“For a long time, schools wanted to turtle in when something bad happened, ‘Nothing to see here, move along,’ and try to manage a lot of things that maybe they couldn’t manage effectively on their own,” Skrbin said. “I’ve been able to create this mutual assistance group where it’s an opt-in for our schools. We’re about eight months into doing this and half of them have opted in and many others have inquired about it where we now have an agreement that whatever the issue is — I’m not just talking about something horrible like an act of violence — but if you lose power and you have to evacuate to a different site and reunify, that’s a manpower intensive thing. If you need help doing that, they call me. I put the bat signal out to the folks that are in this and say, ‘Hey, this school district needs this many counselors, this many administrators, a communications person to help them with this.'”

Skrbin’s first responder background also came in handy this past school year when several districts in the Allegheny IU established a standalone safety and security director position.

“They’ve all been retired law enforcement and good guys but weren’t entirely sure what this was. In each case, their districts have reached out and I’ve gone to work with them to basically mentor them into the role to help them understand what it is,” said Skrbin. “While I was never a police officer, the running joke is that I ‘speak cop.’ My best friend is my SRO in my school district, I sit on the board of the PA Association of School Resource Officers, and I’m still a volunteer first responder, so I understand the language and expectations of both.”

In this discussion, Skrbin also shared:

  • The biggest challenges and hurdles faced in his current role (4:04)
  • His proudest accomplishments as a safety and security director (9:34)
  • The importance of transparency in school safety (14:49)

The full interview transcript is below.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

 


TRANSCRIPT

Amy Rock (00:56): Hi everyone, and thank you for joining me for today’s podcast. My name is Amy Rock. I’m Campus Safety’s executive editor and I’m here with Aaron Skrbin, who is a director of safety and security at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania, and also a K-12 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist this year. And looking over the nomination material that was submitted, Aaron, you obviously have a lot of accomplishments from over the years, but one that you mentioned to me specifically that you’re most proud of is the origination of your position — starting in 2019 — and the resource that has become for your region.
I also read that you’ve held many different positions leading up to this, including a teacher, assistant principal, and principal, so you’ve seen it all perspectives pretty much. How have those roles helped you in being an effective safety and security director?

Aaron Skrbin (01:45): Thank you, Amy. And thank you also for the opportunity. I want to say upfront that I am honestly flattered and surprised to be nominated as a finalist, so I’m very grateful for that. And thanks for this opportunity. To answer your question, I think that everything that I’ve done up to this point or up to the point of filling this role led to that. I was a teacher and a principal and assistant principal, as you noted, and also outside of school. I still am a firefighter and a long time early into my career, quite a while ago, was tasked with the responsibility of school safety before school safety was a thing.

The last district that I worked in, I was there for 15 years. So when I was hired there in 2005, the second meeting that I was in, the superintendent looked at me and said, “You’re a volunteer firefighter in a community nearby.” I said, “Yes, I am.” And she took off literally a dusty binder that was their emergency operations plan that they’d written after September 11th and handed it to me and said, “You’re in charge of this now.” And that was the beginning of my journey in this work, and it just grew and changed over the years as events unfortunately occurred and brought greater focus onto school safety.

As my interest in the work and passion for the work grew and training opportunities were afforded to me, I was very fortunate to be placed in a position where when the Allegheny Intermediate Unit decided that they were going to create this role, that I was uniquely positioned to fill what they were looking for, and that was someone who understood the world of both first responders and education. Then from there, over the last five years, that growth has only continued, I think, and my passion for the work is as strong, if not stronger than it was when I began.

Amy Rock (04:04): What were some of the biggest challenges and hurdles you had to face when you were hired for this current role?

Aaron Skrbin (04:12): Well, the biggest thing was there were two things. One was the role had not existed. So an Intermediate Unit is an educational support agency. We’re a regional agency that supports all of the schools — the 42 public school districts in Allegheny County, and then non-public schools, private schools and whatnot that are in that region while also providing our own services to students through five schools that we operate for students with special needs and alternative education. And so nobody knew what this job was. I had an idea and I knew what I wanted to do, and I was very fortunate, I’ve had two executive directors since I’ve been at the IU. I report directly to them and the executive director is the leader of the organization, and they more or less have given me carte blanche to do what I thought was the right thing to do with their knowledge and blessing of course.

But it’s kind of been my thing to figure out. And initially that was the hardest part. So I got hired, I started working at the very end of October in 2019 and started to get my feet underneath me, built on programs that had been sort of started and stopped by others in a volunteer group of which I was a part that worked with the IU to do some work and school safety and started to get my legs under me.

And then the pandemic happened, and I was designated as the pandemic response coordinator for the organization and wound up serving as kind of a regional resource as well, because I became the liaison for our county and state health department, our county EMA and all of those things. So within four months, it was figuring out what is this job and where does it all fit? And helping people within the organization and our schools understand it, and then having the pandemic laid on top of that. It was an interesting first year.

Amy Rock (06:20): I feel like people are hesitant with change. Did you find teachers in your school were kind of pushing back to this new role being created, or were they more like it’s about time?

Aaron Skrbin (06:31): No, it wasn’t pushback. It was, “Oh wait, you’re doing what?” And it was helping them to understand what this was. And so a lot of work that was being done in silos now had to be sort of shifted to a more organizational approach and to an understanding that, okay, what one does over here has impact on others over here and how all of this. When we’re talking about safety and security, we need to be building one cohesive program throughout the organization. So there was that element of it. And then on the front of our schools that we work with, the 42 public districts and everybody else, it was number one, just recognition that this role exists.

And it wasn’t a hard sell to be honest, because in 2018, Pennsylvania passed the law Act 44, that was in direct response to Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting that required that every school entity, so anything that fell under the guise of PDE, the Department of Education, had to have a school safety and security coordinator designated.

And what wound up happening was a whole lot of folks, in many cases, the most junior assistant principal who missed the meeting when this was decided, is assigned to this job. And they didn’t know what to do with it because there were no job description. There were things you had to do, but no prerequisites, no training or anything. So when this position popped up, they immediately began looking to the IU to say, “What do we do with this?” And then when the pandemic hit and everything stopped, it also brought into focus what this role was because everybody started looking towards intermediate units across the state for guidance and help managing the crisis, especially early on before the State Department of Health and others kind of got their legs under them to figure out what was coming after the CDC figured out what the response was going to be.

So it wasn’t a tough sell, it was more of just an awareness of what the role was supposed to be and where people fit within it. And then also, like I said, I think, I don’t mean this to sound the wrong way, but the pandemic helped that. The pandemic brought that into folks like, “Oh, thank goodness this position is here. Now we have someplace to go with all of this.”

Amy Rock (08:59): Have you seen the show Abbott Elementary? One of the most recent episodes, they finally hired a librarian. There was just a free for all in their library, and one of the teachers who had been there for a long time was very mad that she couldn’t just go in and take out books whenever she wanted. And then she ended up being fine with it. She realized it was better to have a librarian than not, but that just reminded me, sometimes it just takes time for people to adjust to new expectations and processes, but it’s obviously for the greater good.

And it might be something that you just listed or something else. If you had to choose one thing that you’re most proud of that you’ve accomplished so far in this role, what would that be and why?

Aaron Skrbin (09:44): Well, cheating, I guess there are two things. Like I’ve indicated, just the establishment of the role and its recognition as a resource for the region. I don’t like to talk about the work, right? I mean, I want to do the work and by that I mean, I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but just based on the number of districts that I interact with, the variety of calls for assistance that I get, the response to programs that I offer for training and everything else, it’s clear that the position is recognized at this point as a resource. And I feel very humbled by that because people have grown to trust this position and people have grown to trust the organization. And when someone new is hired, “Oh, you need to talk to Aaron about this,” or I’m called in to mentor new directors.

This past school year, we’ve had several districts in our area establish a standalone position as a director of safety and security. And they’ve all been retired law enforcement and good guys, but weren’t entirely sure what this was. And in each case, their districts have reached out and I’ve gone to work with them to basically mentor them into the role to help them understand what it is. And while I was never a police officer, the running joke that I have is I speak cop, my best friend was my SRO in my school district. I sit on the board of the PA Association of School Resource Officers, and I’m still a first responder, so I understand the language and expectations of both. And so I’ve been working with those guys to help them understand, “Here’s what you have to understand about folks in the school,” and where they’re coming from in a mindset and how to make those connections, and most importantly, to build those relationships.

And I guess to kind of circle back to the question, I’d say establishing the position in a different way. It’s building the relationships and building a network of resources that helps to make the kids and the students in our area safer and being able to extend that to the state level by working with organizations like PASRO, like the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, where I was able to form a role alike group to bring folks in this role together that work with IUs to help do our jobs better and support our schools better. And it’s so relationship driven. The most important thing that we’re doing is making connections, talking about the importance of making connections with kids in schools for folks at that level, and talking about building the relationships among the folks that are responsible for carrying this work out.

My line is always, “Look, if I don’t know how to do it, I know a guy. And if that guy doesn’t know, I know the guy that knows the guy.” That’s what I want — to be able to make the connections and to help people to build out school safety programs and to build a culture of safety in their school that forwards the cause of bringing us to no school violence, to bringing us to a place where we don’t have to worry about these things as much as we do, and kids and families feel safe and comfortable coming to school every day.

Amy Rock (12:50): Like you said, information sharing is so important because any problems that a school is facing, it’s not just the school facing those issues, it’s going on either directly in the neighborhood, surrounding it or in society as a whole. It’s not siloed. So sharing that information is key.

Aaron Skrbin (13:07): And that’s the other thing that I feel that I’m very happy about that we were able to do. The concept of mutual aid is not new to first responders, but to schools, I’ll speak at least to this area, it is. Because for a long time, schools wanted to turtle in when something bad happened — nothing to see here please move along — and try to manage a lot of things that maybe they couldn’t manage effectively on their own.

And so I’ve been able to create this mutual assistance group where it’s an opt-in for our schools, and I have about half of them. We’re eight months into doing this. Half of them have opted in and many others have inquired about it where we now have an agreement that whatever the issue is, I’m not just talking about if something horrible happens like an act of violence, but if you lose power and you have to evacuate to a different site and reunify, that’s a manpower intensive thing. If you need help doing that, they call me. I put the bat signal out to the folks that are in this and say, “Hey, this school district needs this many counselors, this many administrators, a communications person to help them with this.” And we go and we support that effort and work with them to make it happen.

And the way that that kind of thing used to happen was that superintendents would simply call their buddies and rely on that instead of there being a formalized process to say, “I have this issue and I need this help, and I know these resources are coming.” And so I’m very grateful that the district saw value in that idea and that we’ve been able to put that in place. I think that’ll help as well when we get into the deeper end of some issues that typically are high profile, high stress, and stretch the resources of a school district.

Amy Rock (14:49): I think transparency is the better approach to school safety, whereas, like you said, it used to be kind of what they don’t know won’t hurt them approach. Where now parents, I know I’m a parent and I would very much appreciate my school being forthcoming about even the problems that they have. You can’t hide that. It’s going to come out. Staying ahead of it is better than being behind it.

Aaron Skrbin (15:17): That’s exactly the point of this group, is that if some issue happens, the administrators in that school need to be focused on exactly what you just said. They may not have the resources though to do that and watch the cafeteria and make sure that these counseling sessions that need to occur are happening or that parent meetings that they need to facilitate or issues during the day that they need to address related to the problem are happening.

I was a principal for almost 20 years, I think I got cafeteria duty down at any school in the country. And so that’s what we’re trying to provide is if police department or fire department get in over their head on something, they call in mutual aid. That’s exactly what this is. Don’t ignore the problem. Admit you’re over your head and help is coming and there’s no judgment about it. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And we’ve encouraged that transparency to the communities as well. And I’ve tried very hard in this role to build a community of folks doing this work, and we come together weekly for these conversations and do bigger things periodically that are larger format. But weekly we have conversations that are basically a format and a forum to air your grievances, to ask for help, to ask about best practices, to become updated on things that are occurring in the field locally, statewide, nationally, and just serve as a clearinghouse and a resource to make our professional practice better.

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