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Communication, Collaboration Key to School Safety, Day Says
5/16/2013

Experts testify at Select Committee hearing in Delaware County

ASTON – Members of the House Select Committee on School Safety and Security heard from educators, law enforcement, mental health and school safety experts about their particular policies, procedures and concerns about school safety on May 9, said Rep. Gary Day (R-Berks/Lehigh), chairman of the committee.

The select committee held a public hearing at Sun Valley High School in Delaware County to learn more about safety and security within urban and suburban school settings, including the City of Philadelphia. This was the second in a series of three hearings to carefully develop and examine policies to enhance safety in schools across Pennsylvania. One of the goals of the committee is to hear from educators, law enforcement and others from around the state to craft the best possible recommendations.

“The legislative process is a very deliberative one, but it is good to take the time and get this right,” Day said of a legislative response to school safety and security. “As we go through this process, a lot of the burden for safety and security falls on local school districts, police and people interested in safety. We may need to update our laws or policies and that’s what we’re looking at with this committee. Let’s collect the good things that we’re doing and share those best practices across the Commonwealth.”

“While the safety of our children should be at the center of this debate, we must also make sure what we do is in the best interest of our educators and communities,” said Rep. Joe Hackett (R-Delaware), who hosted the meeting. “Our mission is to take an honest look at what our schools are doing now to ensure school safety, and learn what we should be doing to enhance it. That includes improving our facilities, and training school personnel and first responders to be prepared should a tragedy occur here.”

The hearing centered on more common security and safety issues faced by schools in heavily suburban and urban settings, including identifying students who are in need of professional assistance, such as those who bully, abuse substances or exhibit mental illness; and the types of security threats faced by school officials, including the possession of weapons, drug exchanges, physical abuse and threats of violence.

“An improved school climate where children and staff feel safe and unencumbered by the threat of violence or harm yields greater productivity and success among students,” said Kelley Hodge, the state’s safe schools advocate for Philadelphia.

Although much of the discussion focused on day-to-day security and safety issues in elementary, middle and high schools, attention was directed to active shooter incidents by law enforcement. Training – including periodic and unannounced lockdown drills – is a large part of response to such situations, but there is currently no common practice among schools and communities about how to prepare.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey explained to the committee that training is key in his department and that officers perform active shooter exercises in the actual schools on weekends so police officers are familiar with the layout of the building.

“This invaluable form of scenario training gives our officers the opportunity to engage with an armed actor in an environment which is similar to a real-life incident,” Ramsey said, noting the exercise is conducted with the involvement of support agencies, such as fire department, paramedics, hospital staff, mass transit, school administrators, and state and federal authorities. “There are no easy answers to these disturbing facts, but it is clear that collaboration between parents, educators, law enforcement and crime prevention practitioners is essential.”

“Law enforcement must take a proactive rather than a reactive approach to making schools safer,” said Cynthia Dorsey, chief of the Office of School Safety for the Philadelphia Police Department. “To this end, it will take a holistic and comprehensive approach to prevent and deter school violence. We must partner with the community, parents, students, school administration, faith-based institutions, student unions and concerned organizations to end the cycle of violence and aggression.”

Both mental illness and bullying have led to school violence incidents. Todd Miller and Chris Ferry, two officials from KidsPeace, a children’s mental health organization in the Lehigh Valley, testified about school safety statistics and that bullying and mental health concerns lead the way in behavioral issues in schools. They also offered insight into their partnerships with local schools and how communication has helped put kids on the right track.

Ashlyn Moyer, a sophomore from Easton, told the committee about her struggles with bullying and how that led her to KidsPeace. “No one knew that I was broken, because I was bullied every day at school,” she said, telling her story of how her behavior scared her and she sought the help of her guidance counselor, who referred her to KidsPeace. “I’m not afraid to speak my mind anymore. I’m not scared to be myself. People still whisper about me but I don’t pay attention to them. I only have KidsPeace to thank for that.”

Dr. Charles Williams from the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University shared with the committee research of three types of successful interventions: social skills training, mentoring and parental support.

Others offering testimony at the hearing were: Michael Chitwood, Upper Darby Police Department; Louis Gentile, Upper Darby School District; Gail Heinemeyer, Robert Rigby and Charles Maiers, Ridley School District; Dr. William Hite, School District of Philadelphia; parent Beth McCarty; and District Attorney John Whelan, Delaware County.

The Select Committee’s next public hearing will be held at Slippery Rock University in Butler County in early June.

Representative Gary Day
187th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact:  Jennifer Keaton
717.705.2094
jkeaton@pahousegop.com
RepGaryDay.com / Facebook.com/RepGaryDay
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