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PROGRESS 2019: Seneca Valley security head goes from protecting presidents to students

As bleary-eyed teens walked into Seneca Valley Senior High School on a recent Monday morning, a former Secret Service agent was there to greet them.

By the time classes started, Jeffrey James, 52, supervisor of safety and security at Seneca Valley School District, had said good morning to hundreds of students and faculty members — most of whom he addressed by name.

Knowing the people going in and out of a school is just one part of a security director's job, but it's one James takes as seriously as the rest.

“You get kids who come out of $1 million homes and kids who walk off farms to come here,” James said. “It makes you stay on your toes.”

The youngest of seven siblings, James said he has seen his family members choose different paths in life, similar to the choices he sees Seneca Valley students making, with some going to college and others entering the workforce or vocational education.

James said schools are a “microcosm of community,” and to understand this community better, he walks through the schools whenever possible. Frequently, he drops in on faculty and students to ask how a dance chaperone recovered from a Friday night's late activities or how the girls' basketball season is going. For him, it's just another small part of his safety mission for the school district.

Secret Service roots

“I take this mission as seriously as my mission at the Secret Service,” said James, who has 22 years of Secret Service experience under his belt.

When James graduated from Clarion University and started substitute teaching, he had no idea he would find himself in a career with the Secret Service.

It was while he was teaching English at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville that an agent he knew “put the bug in (his) ear” to apply. James said the agent told him the Secret Service wanted a diverse workforce, meaning his lack of military experience and career in education weren't disadvantages.

“(They) want people who can pass the tests,” he said.

James began training for the Secret Service in 1996. By the end of 2000, he was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he completed two years of work as an intelligence specialist before serving on presidential detail for five years.

In 2007, he was selected as a first-line supervisor to protect a variety of people, including foreign heads of state. In 2013, he became a liaison to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, coming full circle to his beginning in education.

James earned his second master's degree in 2016 when the Department of Defense sent him to senior service school at the National Defense University's Eisenhower School. After graduating in June 2017, he stayed in the Pittsburgh Secret Service office until his retirement.

Security increases

While working for the White House, James said people would ask him if he would die for the president, to which he always answered, “If I have to — but I'd rather be there for the next time.”

James said his mission now is similar to that of the Secret Service. Neutralizing a threat is always preferred to jumping in front of a bullet, James said, because that way he can be around to continue offering protection.

Now, James finds himself still worried about the safety of people. However, instead of the president of the United States, he's protecting more than 7,000 students across nine buildings in the school district.

He ended up at Seneca Valley as a result of Act 44, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in June 2018. That law requires schools across Pennsylvania to appoint someone to a head of security position in light of the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

After retiring from the Secret Service in July, James was hired to fill this position at Seneca Valley and has been working since then toward school safety goals determined by his threat assessment.

“I don't think the security was weak at any point when I got here and did my threat risk analysis,” he said. “My job is more to standardize.”

James received approval for $25,000 to be used for increased security on school district properties from the School Safety and Security Grant Program offered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

When assessing what Seneca Valley can do to make its schools safer, James said he looks at the tragedies in Parkland, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other school attacks. He has already replaced 44 doors to make them shatter-proof in the senior high school, intermediate high school and Haine Elementary. He said he plans to replace more doors with some of the grant money.

In addition to plans for the school buildings, James has made it a goal to add an emergency app for teachers.

The app isn't limited to an intruder incident, James said. It can be used if the wrong chemicals are mixed in chemistry class and part of a building needs to be closed off or if someone has a medical emergency.

James said the app will allow for faculty to receive real-time updates with more details — without potentially panicking students by making an announcement over a loudspeaker.

While James hopes this will be a useful tool for teachers, he said he focuses on training faculty to be able to respond to an emergency situation, including an active shooter. During one of the school's Act 80 Days, he said, the faculty practiced a lockdown drill with an air horn to mimic shots, so teachers were faced with the decision of evacuating or locking down their classrooms.

“If there is any question, we make sure the kids are safe first,” he said.

Other parts of James' job include dealing with fender benders for cars on campus and attending such “big events” as football and basketball games and high school musicals. He said his presence is meant to de-escalate parents who get upset at sporting events.

A typical day is atypical

Right before James was meant to speak to a student about his time in the Secret Service, he received a phone call.

“Excuse me,” he said, turning away to listen to a report from Sprigeo, the anonymous reporting service students can use to inform faculty about potential threats to themselves or others.

James said he receives an average of three email alerts daily for reports from students, but many don't require follow-ups from him. James said he only receives phone calls if a potential threat seems immediate or serious. He added that students are “our biggest part of security measures.”

Similar to his plans for an accident at the school, James is open to adapting to make it through a school day, but the delay from the Sprigeo phone call didn't stop him from meeting with that student before her class was over.

Senior Katherine Schrett, who has an interest in government careers, asked James a few questions about his time in the Secret Service.

While speaking with Katherine, James becomes more than just a friendly school security official. He adds such labels as “ally” and “mentor” to his job description — although Katherine said safety is still his top priority.

“When I first found out (about James), I was like, 'Wow, that's a lot of background and experience,'” Katherine said.

She said Seneca Valley had ample security before James was added to its team, but the district was “beefing it up” with his presence.

“Everyone knows the security officers here,” She said. “It adds an element of safety. I just see it getting stronger and stronger.”

Students feeling safe while they're on campus is ultimately James' top priority. When parents posed the same question he was asked while working for the White House, James' answer did not waver.

“I'm going to save their kids — or I'm going to die trying,” he said.

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