Safety in schools a dynamic issue

State lawmakers, educators and law enforcement officials seem to agree that there exists no “size fits all” solution to solving school safety issues, particularly as they relate to shootings.

On Thursday, they gathered at Pennsylvania College of Technology for a state Senate Republican Majority Policy Committee Hearing to discuss some of the possible steps toward increased safety and related some of the measures already taken.

Money needed to pay for security to protect schools and to enhance mental health programs for identifying students who pose dangers are among the barriers districts face.

The good news is that $70 million is being made available in this fiscal year to the state’s 500 school districts for enhancing security, according to state Sen. Mike Regan, R-Camp Hill.

No single district can receive more than 10 percent of that total. Unfortunately, the funding needs to be renewed for coming years, he said.

The money can be directed to a number of areas including: safety and security assessments, conflict resolution or dispute management, schoolwide positive behavior support, risk assessments and school safety and all-hazards plans.

Loyalsock Township School District Superintendent Gerald McLaughlin noted the district employs school resource officers at its two school buildings for helping to protect students and employees. It is funded by a cooperative program with the township.

“We are committed,” he said.

Williamsport Area School District has in place a single school resource officer, according to district safety officer Richard Poole.

The problem is that the district is spread out over eight buildings, he added.

Poole lamented the reduction in mental health services.

“Mental health is something we continually struggle with in law enforcement,” South Williamsport Police Chief Robert Hetner said.

He called for legislation that makes it easier to identify the potentially dangerous people otherwise shielded by privacy laws.

Regarding school resource officers, he said it’s important to have the right people in place for those jobs.

“They have to be able to build relationships in schools,” he said.

Judy Bookhamer, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, said, “We need more school counselors.”

Unfortunately, lack of funding makes that difficult, she added.

She suggested freeing up counselors to do more actual counseling in lieu of other duties they are required to perform.

Regan said law enforcement officials “get nervous” about the prospect of arming teachers in schools.

But he noted that many schools are located in rural areas far from the nearest police departments.

Wendy Albor, a school bus contractor with Hilfiger’s Transportation, said bus drivers need to be included in the planning process for school shootings or other threatening situations.

“I need my drivers to know where to go,” she said.

State Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Loyalsock Township, said the public must be cognizant of threats to settings beyond schools.

“We need to be careful not to put all our resources into school safety,” he said.

Regan noted the state bills enacted that address school safety and other pieces of legislation being introduced to address the issue.

State Sen. David Argall, R-Rush Township, said school shootings are part of a changing world.

“We aren’t going to legislate our way out of this anything soon,” he said. “It will be incremental.”