Kathleen Duffy Bruder: School safety requires trained eye for students' lives
When it comes to combating school violence, preparation and student safety go hand-in-hand.
Pennsylvania lawmakers took that message to heart when they approved $60 million for school safety grants that hinge on districts’ ability to develop thorough plans to keep students, teachers and staff secure.
Under Act 44 of 2018, all schools that applied received an initial $25,000 in October.
But qualifying for up to an additional $5.975 million is competitive. The amount of funding a district receives depends on its administrators submitting a comprehensive approach that addresses their buildings’ physical safety as well as programs to identify and help children in crisis.
School officials have received additional time to develop their plans, which means a professional examination of risks and vulnerabilities is an immediate must-do.
More than metal detectors
To help schools find the right professionals, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s (PCCD) School Safety and Security Committee, which is administering the Act 44 grants, has developed a list of those with specific qualifications to perform safety and security assessments.
Brian Krause, a retired state trooper who served on the highly regarded Pennsylvania State Police Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Teams (RVAT) and assisted the PCCD study group that helped craft Act 44, stresses that school safety comes down to extensive planning.
Athletes and band members practice in gyms and football fields after school, and community groups meet virtually around the clock. Students play outside at recess, gym classes are held outside in warmer months, buses come and go, and students carry backpacks that are perfect hiding spots. Each of these occurrences presents safety challenges.
Krause emphasizes that seemingly simple precautions and changes can make a big difference. For example:
• Install locks on classroom doors that secure from the inside, as well as shades or window covers. While Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t have doors that locked from the inside, experts believe the shooter walked by a classroom that fortunately had student projects taped to the door glass, blocking his ability to see the students hiding inside.
• Check classroom windows on lower floors to ensure they both lock and can fully open to allow escape.
• Allow access to the schoolwide public address system from classrooms, not just the main office. This allows teachers and staff to quickly call for a lockdown and alert the entire building about an intruder’s location.
• Make sure everyone working in the school is familiar with the safety plan, including substitute teachers, front office staff, cafeteria workers and maintenance crews.
• Consider the complexities of evacuating children in wheelchairs, students on crutches and special-needs students who may have difficulty moving quickly or keeping quiet.
• Conduct drills in conjunction with the police and other first responders. A new law allows substituting two security drills a year in place of the mandated monthly fire drill. A security drill must also occur within the first 90 days of the school year.
• Metal detectors are by far the improvement parents seem to want most, followed by cameras, security systems and controlled-access systems. But Krause warned that unless there is a well-thought-out plan behind the hardware, schools can spend millions on bells and whistles that can be costly, soon obsolete, and not needed.
Safety now and in the future
It’s clear that in drafting Act 44, lawmakers are looking for schools to take a reasoned, all-inclusive approach. That’s why it’s so critical that schools select qualified consultants approved by the PCCD and follow through on the advice and guidance they receive. Schools can obtain information about potential vendors from the PCCD school safety and security provider registry at www.apps.pccd.pcv.pa.gov/SSAR/#/.
As taxpayers and parents, we all want school safety money to go far, and the blanket of protection to cover everyone, every time. While schools can never plan for every eventuality or fix every risk, we can plan and prioritize. We can assess, assess again, remediate and then reassess.
In this way, knowledge will be not only power but protection.
Kathleen Duffy Bruder is a member of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s Government Relations Group, Harrisburg