Area superintendents call for improved health services, communications systems

By Gary Weckselblatt

Mental health services for students and communications systems infrastructure between emergency services and schools are two areas that need beefing up to improve school security, according to a group of superintendents in Sen. Bob Mensch's 24th District.

Seven superintendents, including Quakertown's Bill Harner, gave their suggestions to Mensch during a school safety summit in Souderton on Friday in which Mensch asked "What keeps you up at night?" and "What should the solutions be?"

Following the 90-minute meeting, Mensch noted the consensus on the mental health component.

"There are legitimate concerns on how to identify potential problems; how to/when to report for the best outcome for the student and the school; how adequate is the mental health support system students are referred to; what other remediation techniques does each school use?" he said. "On this matter, the greatest concern I heard was that the mental health systems in the counties is lacking in resources and thus support to the schools."

And with superintendents from Berks, Bucks and Montgomery counties in his district, Mensch said, "There needs to be much better communications to and from law enforcement. Cross county conflicts need to be eliminated! 911 centers working with County EMS must remove their dispatching conflicts."

Harner, who regularly writes a blog to his school community to update parents with important information, made school safety the focus of his most recent writing.

While the district has had a School Resource Officer based at Quakertown Community High School since 2015, Harner informed the summit that nearby districts in Souderton and Upper Perkiomen have had lockdowns "and my police chiefs don't know about it.

"Fixing the state's infrastructure for communications is the number one thing that should be done," he said.

On the communications front, Harner said his district is working on ways where school leaders can quickly connect on a conference call in emergency situations.

Other superintendent security suggestions include school police, school based threat assessment teams, ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training, building security systems and violence prevention programs.

None of the superintendents were in favor of school employees carry guns on school property. Mensch voted against Senate Bill 383, which would allow school employees to carry firearms. "It's clear to me that my school districts here didn't want it," he said.

Following the deaths of 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school last month, school officials are seeking ways to keep their students and staff safe. While mental health services and communications are universal solutions, Mensch said the needs of each district vary, depending in their number of buildings and geography.

"The issue of safety has many facets, and many possible solutions," he said. "But the ‘one size fits all' approach probably won't give us the result we want. … There will need to be flexibility in any legislative solution for districts to approach solutions that fit their districts best, and these solutions are most obvious in school buildings and access and egress therein. It is apparent to me that simple mandates will not work; they are too inflexible and too insensitive to the local management needs within each district and building."

Costs also factor into any decision. Harner suggested the state offer free security training for all school personnel "until the market has been saturated," and provide matching grant funding for SROs.

North Penn Superintendent Curtis Dietrich suggested an additional exception to Act 1, the state's property tax law, to allow school boards to raise taxes above the allowable index for school security funding. Currently, retirement and special education costs, are allowable exceptions.

"I would really advocate for taking the exceptions," said Dietrich, who said his district has spent $35 million over the last several years to secure entrances to its buildings and coating its windows to prevent shattering.

Superintendents said they would like lawmakers to take a fresh look at state codes that tie the hands of local Magisterial District Justices and allow students who pose a threat to remain in school.

"Our hands are tied in so many different scenarios," Harner said.

Said Dietrich, "The stakes are really hugh. The way people do things now is more sophisticated than when the laws were written."

Gary Weckselblatt, director of communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or [email protected].

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