Greene County Court employees were allowed back in the courthouse before noon Thursday after a bomb threat had been called in and the building evacuated.
Court Administrator Sheila Rode said the threat was discovered Thursday morning on a phone in the office of Public Defender Harry Cancelmi.
“We evacuated immediately,” she said.
Waynesburg police Officer Tom Ankrom, who is investigating along with the county sheriff’s department, said they do have “leads” in the case, but would not specify any suspects.
Interim Sheriff Marcus Simms said his department was notified Thursday morning of a security breach that happened at the courthouse Wednesday night, after his security staff left for the day. He said they are investigating whether that breach is related to the bomb threat.
Three K-9 units from Pittsburgh arrived Thursday morning and completed a “thorough search” of the courthouse, looking for any potential threats such as bombs or guns, Ankrom said.
“Everything appears to be fine,” Ankrom said after the search.
Neither Ankrom nor Simms would confirm if the incident was related in any way to a jury trial that was supposed to take place Thursday morning before President Judge Farley Toothman. The defendant in the trial is Danny McElroy, facing two felony firearms charges. Toothman said that due to the evacuation, he had to declare a mistrial.
Nearby streets, including South Washington and Church streets, were blocked off for hours during the investigation. Law enforcement officers from the Greene County Prison and state police also assisted at the scene.
Nearby businesses like 5 Kidz Kandy and the ManKind barbershop offered cookies and coffee to the officers, who were standing out in the rain for much of the morning.
With its establishment as a home-rule municipality in 1976, Peters Township adopted an administrative code that includes a policy against discrimination in employment practices, housing and public accommodation.
Four decades later, township resident Julie Cantrell is pursuing an update of the policy’s language to add “gender identity or sexual orientation” to a list that now includes the likes of race, age, religion, national origin and political affiliation.
Members of township council, though, are waiting to make a determination. At its June 10 meeting, council voted 5-1, with Monica Merrell opposing, to table Cantrell’s request to put the proposed policy change on an agenda until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on some relevant cases.
“Municipalities are not in the position to try and define protected classes,” Councilman David Ball said. “That’s a federal and state function. It’s before the Supreme Court, so whatever they decide to do is what we’re going to have to do.”
In April, the court agreed to hear cases from New York and Georgia to decide whether workplace protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to gay people, and another from Michigan with regard to transgender people.
Peters Township’s employee handbook does contain “a statement that actually is a bit more expansive than the language that was in the code or ordinances,” township manager Paul Lauer told council.
For example, people with disabilities cannot be discriminated against, in accordance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
“Because protected classes can be somewhat dynamic, it also has a catchall that says, ‘any other characteristics protected by applicable federal and state law,’” Lauer said about the handbook statement. “My interpretation of that, given the guidance that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has given us, right now that does include gender and sexual orientation.”
Merrell said the language in the handbook and policy against discrimination should be consistent, and Lauer agreed.
“I do think the language that is in the handbook, that refers to any other characteristics protected by applicable federal and state law, is something that ought to be included” in the policy, he said.
Cantrell sent an email to Lauer June 3 requesting a council agenda item to amend the policy.
“It would then read: ‘No person in the employment of the township, or seeking admission thereto, shall be employed, promoted, demoted or discharged, or in any way favored or discriminated against because of political opinion or affiliation, or because of race, creed, color, age, sex, religion, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation,’” the email states.
During the audience comments portion of the meeting, Cantrell asked Peters officials to consider posting a nondiscrimination statement on the township website and publications such as calendars.
Cantrell suggested a statement which is based on one posted by Shenango Township, Lawrence County.
“Peters Township is committed to providing an environment that’s free from discrimination in employment and opportunity because of race, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, marital status, disability, veteran or draft status, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation or age,” her suggested statement read.
Cantrell said it would not be an ordinance or anything township officials would have to enforce.
“It’s a statement saying that, as a township, we don’t discriminate,” she told council. “If we were able to do that, then I could see placing a stall or a hold on the nondiscrimination ordinance until we are able to get more information and maybe research that a little bit more.”
Resident Carolee Ketelaar, who had spoken in support of Cantrell’s requests at previous council meetings, said she agrees with the township taking such a measure.
“I think that’s really important for people of all ages, all types of people, to know, that they are welcome here, whether they live here, whether they shop here,” Ketelaar said.
Cantrell first approached council March 11 about changing the language of the nondiscrimination policy.
“In Pennsylvania, municipalities are legally empowered by the state to enact local LGBTQ equality laws and policies,” she said at that meeting. “The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act of 1955 allows for cities, townships, boroughs, counties to pass nondiscrimination ordinances which exceed the state law.”
She quoted information from the website of the LGBTQ youth advocacy organization Pennsylvania Youth Congress, which currently states:
“As of April 2019, at least 55 of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities have passed LGBTQ-inclusive local non-discrimination ordinances. The residents of these municipalities amount to over 33 percent of Pennsylvania’s overall population (U.S. Census, 2015 estimates). Pennsylvania has the most number of LGBTQ-inclusive local nondiscrimination ordinances adopted of any state in the nation.”
Mt. Lebanon was among the municipalities, which adopted its ordinance in 2017.
Peters Township Council revisited Cantrell’s request April 22, when Lauer said concerns about discrimination against certain individuals are addressed best through federal and state laws, and the appropriate role for the township is to refer residents to appropriate agencies at those levels.
Solicitor John Smith, who researched the topic for a report to council, agreed and recommended against pursuing an ordinance to change the nondiscrimination policy.
At council’s May 28 meeting, Ketelaar asked that a task force be formed to investigate a nondiscrimination ordinance. Cantrell stated her agreement and requested that Smith’s report be made public.
She also has started a change.org petition calling for an LGBTQ-inclusive local nondiscrimination ordinance in Peters Township.
When her children were young, Pam Sanders of Washington Township volunteered at their elementary school, helping out with whatever the teachers needed. It was more than 10 years ago, but that’s when she realized a great need in Greene County.
“There were kids there that you could tell were neglected or abused,” she said. “I just saw kids outside of my bubble that have a lot of issues and parents that have a lot of issues.”
When the opportunity arose last year for her to become a volunteer Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children in foster care, Sanders went for it.
“It’s not something I ever thought about doing until I saw a need for these kids,” she said. “I decided why not.”
Others have joined her, and this month the volunteer program doubled its number of volunteer advocates for children. CASA added seven new volunteers, during a swearing-in ceremony last week, taking them up to 15 volunteers in the county.
The national nonprofit started its Greene County chapter last year, when Rebecca Matchett was hired as the program director. She said so far, they’ve had volunteers appointed to seven critical abuse and neglect cases, serving 20 children.
“With this new round of volunteers, we’ll be able to take on more cases,” she said. “We are still in the early stages, but the difference we’ve already made in the community is overwhelmingly positive.”
She said about 120 Greene County children are in foster care.
“The need in Greene County is great,” Matchett said. “There are significant substance abuse issues that create challenges for families, and the children are the ones suffering. They’re in need of an advocate – someone who will be there for them and a constant adult presence for them until they’re in a safe home.”
The CASA volunteers go through 30 hours of training and background clearances before working with children. After they’re sworn in, they can be assigned cases.
Sue Wise is one of the newest volunteers to be sworn in. She used to be an elementary teacher, and now she teaches educators while working with Teaching With Primary Sources and Waynesburg University.
“I have always been an advocate for children,” she said. “This program is designed to give our future citizens a better voice in their own lives. They don’t always have people who will fight for their best interest. Their need is greater than what it will cost me.”
Matchett said the CASA volunteers go to visit the child at least once a month, “to see if all of the child’s needs are being met.” The volunteers also attend any court proceedings with the child and spend time with the child in their temporary home to “form a bond,” which can take some time, she said, since many of the children have some form of trauma.
“These children start realizing their CASA volunteer is there for them and will be with them over this process, until they’re in a safe, permanent home,” Matchett said.
Matchett said they work side-by-side with Greene County Children and Youth Services “for the best interest of the child.” She said the goal is always to reunite the child with their parents if possible.
Sanders took on her first case in January. She said the experience so far has been eye-opening.
“I wasn’t naïve to the issues in Greene County – that Greene County has a drug problem,” she said. “I just didn’t realize how overloaded the system totally is. It’s one thing to read about it in the newspaper or see it on the news, but it’s so far reaching and it affects everybody.”
She spends anywhere from two to 15 hours a week with her volunteer duties, like preparing court reports, checking in with people connected with her case and meeting and bonding with the two young children involved.
“They’re in limbo,” she said. “Their life is not in a permanent place. But kids are resilient. I’ve already seen a phenomenal amount of progress in these kids.”
The job has its “tough moments,” especially since some of the situations, Sanders said, could have been prevented.
“Each bad choice is another big weight on these kids’ shoulders and they didn’t sign up for that – they didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
She said the CASA organization help volunteers with home visits and court proceedings. She said volunteers are never forced to take on any cases with which they’re not comfortable.
Overall, it’s very rewarding work, Sanders said. She encouraged other people to join in the effort.
“The kids I’m helping are young, so they might not remember me when they’re older, but I’ll remember them. I’ll never forget them, and that’s all I need,” she said.
Matchett said there will be another training session in August for new volunteers. The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. sessions will be August 5, 7, 12 and 14. Matchett said anyone interested in being a volunteer would need to take all four sessions. She said people of all careers, educations and backgrounds are welcomed as volunteers.
“The main thing is that they all have a passion for helping children and are people with big hearts,” she said. “While I’m very proud of the advocates we have and the amount of children we’re able to serve at this point, there’s still a need, and a CASA volunteer can make a difference. My goal is for every child in foster care to have a Court-Appointed Special Advocate.”