State Senate committee holds school safety hearing in Quakertown

Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner speaks with Quakertown students Nina Shiller and Casey Nguyen prior to the start of the forum.

Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner speaks with Quakertown stu­dents Nina Shiller and Casey Nguyen pri­or to the start of the forum.

The Quakertown Community School District is quick­ly becom­ing the epi­cen­ter for dis­cus­sion on school safe­ty.

Just hours after the dis­trict held the ini­tial meet­ing of its Community School Safety Committee, the state’s Senate Majority Policy Committee vis­it­ed Quakertown Friday morn­ing to review school safe­ty efforts with stu­dents and school, law enforce­ment and local offi­cials. It was the pol­i­cy committee’s 10th meet­ing statewide as law­mak­ers seek ways to pro­tect stu­dents in school.

These days there is no more impor­tant top­ic than school safe­ty, and we are proud that our rep­re­sen­ta­tives chose Quakertown as a place to hold this sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sion,” Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner said. “With the sup­port of our School Board, Quakertown is con­tin­u­al­ly improv­ing our secu­ri­ty to pro­tect our stu­dents and staff mem­bers. I thank Sen. Bob Mensch for his ardent advo­ca­cy on this issue, and for bring­ing this com­mit­tee and the impor­tant work they are doing into our home. The oppor­tu­ni­ty for our stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate in the build­ing of pub­lic pol­i­cy is an invalu­able piece of their edu­ca­tion.”

Students played a major role in the event. Quakertown Community High School stu­dents Nina Shiller and Casey Nguyen respond­ed to law­mak­ers’ ques­tions, as did Pottsgrove High stu­dents Brenna Mayberry and Joshua Ross. QCHS stu­dents Alexa Cass, Amelia Derry and Alex Hallowell video­taped the forum.

Sen. David Argall, chair­man of the com­mit­tee, said “There’s been a robust and hearty exchange of infor­ma­tion as we learn of your con­cerns. There’s no fin­ished point in this. We’re going to con­tin­ue to be focused on this.” He not­ed that in all of the committee’s meet­ings, Quakertown had the largest stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and asked the stu­dents “How high on the scale does (school safe­ty) reg­is­ter?”   

After Parkland, like any time there is a fire drill or the prin­ci­pal comes on the loud­speak­er the anx­i­ety set­tles in,” Nina said. “The pres­ence of fear is def­i­nite­ly still here.” Brenna agreed. “It’s not some­thing that ever leaves or is very far away,” she said. “The focus on learn­ing has kind of shift­ed to ‘Are we safe here today?’ I’m think­ing often in school of where the safest place would be for me to go if some­thing hap­pened. ”

Said Argall, “As a father, it breaks my heart to hear your wor­ries. But as a Boy Scout, I stand by the mot­to ‘be pre­pared.’ ”

That prepa­ra­tion would ben­e­fit from more fund­ing, school offi­cials said. State law­mak­ers passed school safe­ty leg­is­la­tion, which includes a $60 mil­lion grant pro­gram to give school dis­tricts flex­i­ble options to improve school safe­ty, includ­ing hir­ing school secu­ri­ty per­son­nel and coun­selors, pur­chas­ing safe­ty equip­ment like met­al detec­tors, and imple­ment­ing spe­cial pro­grams to reduce vio­lence in schools.

Sen. Mike Regan said law­mak­ers under­stand fund­ing needs to con­tin­ue on an annu­al basis. “Now that we’ve done it once, it’s going to be eas­i­er going for­ward. Who’s going to vote against this?”

North Penn Superintendent Curtis Dietrich called for school safe­ty to be added as an excep­tion, like retire­ment and spe­cial edu­ca­tion costs, under Act 1, the state’s prop­er­ty tax law. “I don’t like the prop­er­ty tax either,” he said. “But I think our com­mu­ni­ty would say ‘absolute­ly, do it.’ ”

Dietrich said school board’s are local­ly elect­ed and if the com­mu­ni­ty believes rais­ing tax­es for  school safe­ty is a bad deci­sion, direc­tors would be held account­able.

Mensch, who rep­re­sents Quakertown and pushed for the meet­ing to be held here, said, “We need to give more flex­i­bil­i­ty local­ly. (How this mon­ey is spent) shouldn’t be a Harrisburg deci­sion.”

Steaven Klein, pres­i­dent of the Quakertown Community School Board, agreed that deci­sions on school secu­ri­ty should remain local. He also com­mend­ed Senators on the pan­el for sup­port­ing Senate Bill 1078, which was added to the PA School Code. The new law allows school boards to dis­cuss cer­tain secu­ri­ty mea­sures as a group in exec­u­tive ses­sion with­out fear of break­ing the law.

Dr. Harner, who was described by Regan as one of the fore­fa­thers of School Resource Officers for his work in oth­er dis­tricts, said in his edu­ca­tion­al read­ings it’s clear that par­ents want SROs in build­ings. QCSD’s SROs Brian Hendrzak and Bob Lee were in atten­dance. “They pro­tect our most pre­cious resources,” Dr. Harner said.

Nina said she believes Lee “plays a vital role” in mak­ing sure stu­dents are safe and said she’d be com­fort­able going to an SRO or admin­is­tra­tor if she knew of a poten­tial threat. She also thanked Lee and teacher Sean Burke for giv­ing lessons to groups of stu­dents on how to counter some­one. “It’s very proac­tive,” she said.

Nina was one of the stu­dents who helped orga­nize the stu­dent walk­out last March, to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the attack on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Mensch com­mend­ed her for the way the walk­out was han­dled. Dr. Harner explained that the dis­trict met with law enforce­ment and emer­gency ser­vices offi­cials, and used the event as a train­ing exer­cise for the pro­tec­tion of the stu­dents, and to learn where “we may need to improve in the event of an emer­gency.”

Several speak­ers, includ­ing Dr. Harner, Souderton Superintendent Frank Gallagher, and Palisades School District Superintendent Bridget O’Connell, sug­gest­ed law­mak­ers pro­vide more fund­ing for school coun­selors and psy­chol­o­gists. O’Connell sug­gest­ed incen­tiviz­ing med­ical stu­dents to pur­sue careers in men­tal health.

Mensch asked every­one in the room to con­tin­ue the dia­logue. “We need you to be part­ners and advo­cates,” he said. The good ideas for leg­is­la­tion come from you all. … Don’t be shy. Tell us what you think. … Believe me, we hear you.”

The night before, dur­ing the kick­off to QCSD’s Community School Safety Committee, 15 par­ents began their impor­tant work. “They cov­ered a great deal, and laid a strong foun­da­tion to move for­ward,” said assis­tant Superintendent Nancianne Edwards, facil­i­ta­tor for the com­mit­tee. “Having par­ents ful­ly involved in this process will help make sure that any deci­sions made will be ful­ly sup­port­ed by the school com­mu­ni­ty.”

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD 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 gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.