Op-Ed: School Safety

As a legislator and as a parent, the safety and health of children in this Commonwealth is one of my top priorities.

In fact, there’s little else that matters more to many of us than the overall wellbeing of our children.  It’s the chief reason that issues affecting children are so hotly contested, because so many people care very deeply about preparing, nurturing, and protecting children, giving them the opportunity to become productive and contributing members of society.

Recently, discussions surrounding the physical safety our children have catapulted into the spotlight as a result of the alarming violence taking place in our nation’s schools.  Parents, teachers, and even students are standing up to make their voices heard as policymakers and public officials seek to find solutions.

These calls for increased school security, better mental health resources, and the restriction of inappropriate access to firearms to alleviate the very real threat of violence in schools have not fallen on deaf ears.

From roundtable discussions, to the creation of new grant programs to fund school security initiatives, to the implementation of anonymous reporting systems, the Pennsylvania General Assembly is working across the aisle to provide the tools that schools need to ensure students’ safety.

In fact, at the end of June this year, a comprehensive school safety bill was signed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support.

This legislation established a grant program to which schools can apply for funding to implement new security upgrades in their facilities.  The bill was specifically crafted to give schools the flexibility to utilize the funds for initiatives that they feel are needed most.  From hiring new police officers or school resource officers, to developing school safety and emergency preparedness plans, to adding physical features or equipment to the school buildings to improve safety, schools are able to tailor their use of the funds to their specific needs.

Other key features of this bill include:

  1. A threat reporting and monitoring system that will allow students, teachers, school administrators, and community members to anonymously report suspicious activity or potentially unsafe situations,
  2. School safety assessments and guidelines to help identify and address potential security issues, and
  3. Mandatory training on school safety and security for school employees.

However, the conversation surrounding school safety cannot and will not end with the passage of this legislation.  Further initiatives to address these widespread concerns are being developed and should be considered if they help address this important issue. 

As many may know, myself and other officials representing Lancaster County on both the state and local level recently participated in a roundtable discussion in Lititz focusing on school safety and the challenges it brings to our specific area.  These roundtable discussions are being held all over the state to gather information from diverse perspectives as a way to gain insight into what direction the policy decisions we make here in Harrisburg should take.

One theme that has been repeatedly brought up for discussion at these listening sessions is the effects that mental health and mental health resources have on school safety.  To be sure, it is critical that we recognize the value of including the mental health of students in discussions surrounding school safety, because to do otherwise is to ignore the root of the problem. 

Other approaches such as gun control measures or increased security officers and screenings at school building entrances – while valuable policies – are reactive policies.  Because they don’t target the root cause of violence, these types of reactive policies alone cannot create a truly safe environment for our children – they must be coupled with improved mental health resources.

To that end, the funds provided through the grant program I previously mentioned are available for schools to use towards providing better mental resources for their students, such as hiring additional guidance counselors for placement with at-risk populations.

To be clear, the challenge of securing our schools and providing a safe environment for Pennsylvania students is a multi-faceted issue that will require a myriad of initiatives if we are to fully address it with input from all community members.

The General Assembly, both Republicans and Democrats, are committed to finding the combination of proposals that works best for our Commonwealth’s students.  Whether it be mental health services or metal detectors, lawmakers and school officials need to hear what students, administrators, parents, and community members need to feel safe.

The education of Pennsylvania students is paramount.  But when a child’s sense of safety is compromised, it clouds that goal, forcing students, teachers, and parents alike to become preoccupied with something other than the child’s education.  The General Assembly is prepared to do all that it can to restore that sense of safety, allowing schools to refocus their attention on what matters most:  Providing a quality education to Pennsylvania children.