Students had a message for school leaders, law enforcement, health professionals and Harrisburg officials who gathered Tuesday at Woodland Hills High School: Listen to us.
“When having this conversation about safety in our schools, we have to be listening to people who are actually inside the school, so that means students,” said Christian Carter, a recent Pittsburgh CAPA graduate. “Students are experiencing this public school system from the day that they are in kindergarten all the way up until 12th grade.”
Carter spoke at the final meeting of the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force, which held five other meetings throughout the state to gather feedback from communities on school safety. He urged those in power to continue to make sure students and parents — and especially those who have been personally impacted by gun violence — have a seat at the table as security decisions are made.
The task force — which is led by Gov. Tom Wolf and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale — over the summer will produce a report that is to include recommendations for improving school safety.
The task force formed about a month after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., with the intention of evaluating issues such as funding for school safety initiatives, access to physical and mental health support programs, effectiveness of state requirements for training and security, and quality of reporting or anonymous tip tools.
Charles Ramsey, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency; Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators; Judy Morgitan, immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners; and Bonita Allen, president of the Pennsylvania Parent Teacher Association, served as vice-chairs of the task force.
Vice-chairs were responsible for inviting local representatives to the six local meetings, said state Homeland Security Director Marcus Brown, who also has been involved in the work of the task force.
Brown commended students’ participation, calling their insight into school safety one of the highlights of the task force meetings.
“If we’re not listening, then we are missing out,” Brown said. “And if we’re not focusing on the concerns of the students, on the issues that the students are dealing with every day — the mental health issues, the social media issues — if we’re not dealing with those issues, then we’re missing it. We are missing it. And I think what we’ve seen in every single one of these sessions is, that’s going to be a huge takeback for us.”
As districts across the region discuss security upgrades — cameras, door locks, metal detectors — the task force is looking into compiling a list of reliable vendors to help districts avoid being ripped off by security companies looking to cash in on the push to improve school security, DePasquale told the Tribune-Review.
Greensburg Salem School District, for example, recently floated a $2.5 million security upgrade that would include renovating the entrances at its five school buildings.
Community members in the Southmoreland School District raised $42,000 during a spaghetti dinner in April to fund security upgrades such as new door locks and cameras, and potentially add an additional school police officer.
The Norwin School District also is looking into updating camera and security systems using money available through a state grant. Funding for a school resource officer will likely come from Norwin’s budget.
DePasquale also said that the task force will take a close look at mental health resources in schools, calling it the most “consistent and universal” topic to be discussed at the listening sessions across the state.
“Some of it is staffing, but some of it is better coordination of the counseling, some of it is better awareness,” he said.
Though the task force is not likely to recommend arming teachers, DePasquale said it is looking into suggestions from schools across the state for having other armed and trained security staff in schools.
“If we’re going to have law enforcement in the building, they have to be trained to be able to work with young kids and teenagers so that they feel comfortable working with that particular law enforcement professional,” DePasquale said of the concerns around adding additional security and law enforcement to school buildings.
The public can send feedback to the task force online at www.governor.pa.gov/school-safety-feedback.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at [email protected], 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.