A Push for Safer Schools Tops our Back-to-School List

By Sen. Michele Brooks

“One size does not fit all.”

That theme recurred whenever school officials and state lawmakers discussed the safety needs of our local schools.

That is why I fought to ensure that flexibility was built into the $60-plus million dollars we successfully added for school safety to the new, no-tax-hike 2018-2019 state budget.

Staying true to that philosophy, when our local schools receive money for safety upgrades, those dollars can be tailored specifically to their individual needs, whether they want video-cameras, locks, metal detectors, safety officers, or other innovations. While some newer schools were built with ultra-modern security, in this post-Columbine world, many older schools– especially those with the once-popular open floor plans— lack many basic safety measures and are costly to retrofit. Therefore, allowing each school to prioritize and personalize their needs was a critical component that I fought for in the budget.

In another major step, the Legislature directed that additional teams of officers be added to the Pennsylvania State Police’s highly respected Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Teams (RVATs). These teams of troopers will come into your school building, examine vulnerabilities, and recommend improvements, checking everything from entranceways and exits, to school safety drills.

The General Assembly allocated $60 million to a School Safety and Security Grant program, allowing schools to choose from a menu of security options.

Schools can receive at least $25,000, with a cap of 10 percent for each school entity, so that no one school district consumes the lion’s share of the money.

Understanding that many areas do not have full-time police departments, I also worked to allow rural school districts to partner with neighboring municipalities who have part-time police departments, to hire school resource officers, school police officers and school security officers. Schools then are afforded the freedom to hire highly trained, part-time or full-time police officers to act as school resource officers.

The new school safety law also establishes the Safe2Say Program to provide for anonymous reporting about unsafe, potentially harmful, dangerous, violent or criminal threats in schools.

As part of the budget, Act 44 also established the School Safety and Security Committee (SSSC) under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD).

This committee will ensure that all schools meet minimum safety standards. After receiving surveys from schools, committee experts would be tasked with suggesting safety upgrades by Jan. 31, 2019.

While these measures are all important steps, ultimately, more money and more mandates are not perfect or permanent answers. It is important to look holistically to see what, in our culture, has changed so dramatically to allow violence to invade our schools so frequently.

I remember the days, just as many of you do, I am sure, when we went to school and worried more about our homework and what we were doing at recess than about an armed intruder. Most kids were showing off their Swiss Army knives at recess, or their hunting rifles for show-and-tell. That could never happen in today’s climate. We need to have a tough discussion about why that is, and what has changed so dramatically in our world today.

classroom security

Children should learn in an environment of creativity, peace and trust, not suspicion and fear. As both a mother and a legislator, it continues to concern me that we have come to the point that we must have these conversations about preparing children for school shooters, bullying, suicidal classmates, and more. Even with the most state-of-the-art safety upgrades, we still want schools to be welcoming and open to parents and our littlest learners.

In the wake of the Parkland shootings and far too many other heart-wrenching incidents of school danger, I will continue to work with my colleagues on the Senate’s recently formed School Safety Task Force, to develop comprehensive solutions that include improved school infrastructure and additional mental health resources. I plan to host a roundtable for school officials this fall to work together with security experts on assessing needs and developing workable solutions.

We want to have child-friendly places of learning, not locked-down institutions. By affording local school leaders the freedom and flexibility to design the school that best meets their needs, we hope that our schools will continue to be a place of big dreams.

I extend a heartfelt “thank you” to the many parents, teachers, school board members, administrators, police officers and more who have partnered with me on school safety and who are linking hands in the community to make that safe space for learning possible.

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