Years of experience have taught Mercersburg Academy campus safety officers to expect the unexpected when the phone rings.
Take for instance a recent day’s call: A dorm room window has been broken and the cause needs to be investigated.
“If something breaks on campus, they call us, 24/7,” Director of Campus Safety Skip Sydnor P ’12 said with a shrug as the phone call ended. “Anything that happens during hours, after hours, we are contacted, and then we have to decide who to contact or what to do to fix it.”
Sydnor and his staff handle the aftermath in coordination with other departments on campus.
Broken windows can be replaced, no injuries were sustained, and it’s just another day in the life of a boarding school community.
Campus safety is a priority at Mercersburg, which is home to 446 students and many of our 105 faculty members and their families.
While Mercersburg's campus provides a safe place to live and learn, the presence of experienced campus safety officers is an added measure of assurance and protection.
“We are tasked with anything and everything,” said Sydnor, noting that campus safety officers patrol the campus, check that buildings are locked, watch for unknown vehicles, and keep their eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary.
The highly experienced campus safety staff includes five full-time officers and five part-time officers.
Sydnor has 26 years of experience with the Pennsylvania State Police, including 10 years in the patrol unit and 16 years in the criminal investigation unit.
Assistant Director of Campus Safety Sean Flaherty P ’21 has 25 years of experience with the Pennsylvania State Police, where he attained the rank of sergeant and was a station commander. Through Mercersburg’s commitment to continuing education for its employees, Flaherty earned his master’s degree in global intelligence and security.
“We both were state troopers in this area, so we’re familiar with the outside world,” Sydnor said. “I think that’s very important.”
While most state police agencies in the United States are essentially highway patrols, the Pennsylvania State Police is the state’s primary law enforcement agency.
“We are very different from a lot of state police agencies in the country,” Flaherty said. “Both Skip and I were lead investigators in homicides, arson investigations, robberies, you name it. What might panic a person without experiencing the things we’ve seen, it’s like second nature for us to respond to it.
“We want our guys to be observant, to look for things that might be out of place. A student might walk by something without even thinking anything of it. We expect our staff to make an observation and, if something’s wrong, to resolve that issue.”
Mercersburg supports ongoing professional development, and officers routinely receive additional training, such as de-escalation, intervention, and force mitigation. Some of the part-time officers are sheriff's deputies in Franklin County, so they draw on that experience as well.
“We’re in tune with situational awareness,” Flaherty said. “We may see things that a lot of people don’t even notice, and that’s from our training, background, and experience.”
Because they’ve been in a variety of situations, campus safety officers are quick to respond if trouble surfaces.
“When something occurs, we already have a quick response,” Sydnor said. “Our minds are already working to solve the problem.”
Effective communication skills are needed as the campus safety officers work with those on campus and in the surrounding community.
“Mercersburg Academy and the town of Mercersburg have always had a great, positive relationship, which is definitely beneficial to us,” Sydnor said. “Can something happen? Have things happened? Yes, but honestly, the relationship has always been 98 percent positive, if not more. We’re here to protect Mercersburg Academy. We have 300 acres, 30 some buildings.”
Most of the Mercersburg campus is in the state police jurisdiction. A small part of the campus is in the Mercersburg borough jurisdiction.
“If something happens here right now, the Mercersburg police are going to come, and the state police will come,” Sydnor said. “We have good support. We have good relations with both departments.”
A camera system throughout campus enables both campus safety and the Office of Student Life to review questionable occurrences. Additional cameras continue to be added so security can be increased.
“One positive thing is that over the last few years, they’ve been putting up more cameras, and that’s very helpful,” Flaherty said. “We have a big-screen TV with different cameras throughout campus. We can see parts of the campus. We can’t see everything yet, but we can see more. They’re doing a great job moving forward with that.”
A building security system, which is maintained by campus safety, requires fob programming, a form of electronic access, of every door on campus.
All students, faculty, and staff are required to register their vehicles so the Campus Safety Office can monitor traffic on campus.
Faculty and staff also are vigilant.
“I think part of the positive thing about the Mercersburg community is we have faculty and staff who will not hesitate to call us if they see something that they don’t think is right, which is nice because it’s another set of eyes that we have,” Flaherty said.
The campus safety officers know they can rely on the Office of Student Life, too, Sydnor said.
“If we need something, we call them,” Sydnor said. “If they need something, they call us. We work with the Student Life Office hand in hand.”
It also helps to have a leader who remains calm under pressure, Sydnor said, referring to Head of School Quentin McDowell P ’25.
“I’ve worked with Quentin on a couple emergencies here on campus throughout the years before he was head of school and as head of school,” Sydnor said. “He’ll take your advice. He evaluates things well.”
Occasionally, campus safety officers receive unusual requests.
“I’ve been here 15 years, so I’ve had a whole flock of them,” Sydnor said, choosing the bird analogy wisely. On a recent Saturday afternoon, there was a bird stuck in a gutter. Campus safety officers received the call and freed the bird.
The officers have helped other animals, too, even ones that weren’t supposed to be on campus.
“When my daughter was a freshman here, somebody snuck a gerbil in a room. It fell off the bed, and they thought it broke its leg,” Sydnor said. “So [the students] called me to come check and see if the gerbil was OK. They’re not allowed to have a pet, and then they called me to come check on that gerbil to see if the leg’s OK. I had to laugh. I had to do a triage on a gerbil.”
The officers know that boarding school life can present some interesting challenges.
“Something that really helped us understand the dynamics of the Academy is that we both have daughters who went to school here, so I really think that helped with me understanding the culture coming from where I came from,” Flaherty said.
They keep in mind that the students are teenagers, and as dads, they’ve been there, they get it, they laugh, and then they head out the door to answer the next call.
Pictured: Director of Campus Safety Skip Sydnor P ’12 and Assistant Director of Campus Safety Sean Flaherty P ’21 bring decades of experience to their positions.