Preparedness

Information Sharing, Mental Health Intervention Among Ideas to Stop School Shootings

Every school and community is different and the report is not meant to dictate statewide policy, said Marcus Brown, Wolf’s director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

by Steve Esack, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) / August 28, 2018

(TNS) - More classroom door locks, police officers, surveillance cameras and mental health professionals could help improve the safety of students and staff in Pennsylvania schools, according to a report released Monday by Gov. Tom Wolf and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The recommendations would cost taxpayers money if schools implement one or more in a bid to prevent more of the mass shootings that have killed or wounded more than 400 people since 2012.

Every school and community is different and the report is not meant to dictate statewide policy, said Marcus Brown, Wolf’s director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all report,” Brown said at a news conference in the Capitol.

But the report did carry one statewide dictate: No arming of civil school personnel anywhere in Pennsylvania.

The concept of arming school teachers gained more traction nationally from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others in the Trump administration following the Valentine’s Day shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Republican Scott Wagner, who hopes to unseat Wolf in the November election, has pledged to put a “highly trained” armed security guard in every school in Pennsylvania.

Last year, the state Senate narrowly approved a bill that would allow civilian school personnel to carry firearms after being trained. The bill failed to gain traction in the House. Arming school personnel was not one of the ideas put forward in a $60 million school safety grant that was part of the 2018-19 state budget.

While the new school safety report was being developed, the topic of arming school teachers came up in numerous public meetings and online comments, DePasquale said. “And the overwhelming majority said teachers should not be armed,” he said.

The biggest consensus to improving safety, DePasquale said, was having schools employ more mental health experts either as part of their staff or through contracted services with counties. The mental health experts would be better trained than typical guidance counselors to help students deal with depression, bullying and other problems impacting their personal and school life, he said.

Hiring more staff would require more money than the new grant could provide to thousands of public and private schools serving students from pre-school to 12th-grade.

“We probably need more money for mental health,” DePasquale said.

State police could also use more money to help improve safety in rural schools in areas without local police departments, he added. State police do not have the manpower, DePasquale said, to provide free security assessments in every school in their coverage area. That’s leading, he said, to a cottage industry of offering security advice to schools for a price.

The report recommends the state create a list of vetted and approved security firms to help rural school boards and private institutions hire reputable contractors to assess building safety in areas without state police assistance.

Money woes alone are not the only obstacle to implementing some of the report’s 32 recommendations. Privacy laws also are a factor.

The report found that various state and federal privacy laws prevent school officials from sharing some student discipline, health and education records with outside law enforcement and social service agencies — and vice versa. Those laws should be amended to include more data sharing, the report said, if elected officials are serious about creating “multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams” of educators, police, health care providers and social service agencies to spot and stop potential threats.

Absent changes in those laws, the state can do a better job of clearing up “misinformation” among school boards, law enforcement and others about what kind of student information can be shared, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said.

The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a case study in various government agencies not sharing information about alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz.

In the months leading up to the shooting, Cruz was expelled from school, neighbors reported to police he posted “I’m going to be a professional school shooter” on YouTube, the FBI failed to follow up on a tip he planned a mass shooting, and a county social service agency determined he was not a risk, according to published reports.

Pennsylvania’s state budget also included money for the attorney general’s office to establish an anonymous hotline in which students and others can call to report unsafe, dangerous, violent or criminal activities in schools. The hotline is not yet up and running.

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