With the recent mass shooting in Ulvade, Texas, which left 19 elementary school children and two teachers dead and 17 others wounded at the hands of an 18-year-old gunman, administrators at schools across the United States must once again grapple with the issue of safety for their students and staff.
“Yes, it happened again,” Rebecca S. Pringle, president of the National Education Association and a native of Philadelphia, wrote in an open letter dated May 25 to all senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. “And everyone in America knows it will continue to happen if nothing changes.
“You have a duty to do everything in your power to protect our children, our educators, our neighbors, our citizens from senseless and preventable killings. What are you waiting for?”
According to U.S. News & World Report, the Center for Homeland Defense and Security has documented 540 school shooting incidents nationwide that resulted in at least one victim killed or wounded since 2012. And, according to the statistics, Pennsylvania ranks fifth among states with frequent shootings; Texas tops the list at 43, followed by California with 41, Illinois with 37, Florida with 31, and Pennsylvania with 26.
The survey of shootings begins in 2012, when 20 children and six adults died at Sandy Hook. The website Sandy Hook Promise notes that guns currently are the leading cause of death among American children and teens.
In fact, the website notes, a comprehensive study of school shootings by the Secret Service and Department of Education found that 93% of school shooters planned the attack in advance and, in four out of five school shootings, at least one other person knew of the attacker’s plan in advance but failed to report it.
In an article published May 25, NPR reported that 212 mass shootings have occurred so far this year, including 27 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths.
‘Our students are safe’
So what does this mean in Lebanon County?
“I would say yes, our students are safe. We do everything we can to keep students safe,” said Philip L. Domencic, superintendent of Cornwall-Lebanon School District.
Domencic said the district takes safety and security “very seriously.”
“Obviously, we have protocols in place for entry procedures at all schools,” he told LebTown. “We have a continued cooperation with local law enforcement, as well as our own district police and administration. And we continue to review these things. This isn’t once and done. We review concerns and errors.
“Our goal is to keep everyone safe, to get them the resources and help, if they need that, if they are troubled.”
It’s important, Domencic said, to keep lines of communication open.
“If people see something or hear something, say something,” he said. “They need to use the Safe2Say line, call the school. If you hear something online, or if someone says something — that’s a very powerful tool. We appreciate it when people utilize that and we can follow up on it. … Even if it’s not true, we want to follow up on it.”
Safe2Say Something is a youth violence prevention program run by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office. According to the website, the program “teaches youth and adults how to recognize warning signs and signals, especially within social media, from individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others and to ‘say something’ BEFORE it is too late.”
“Anyone can say something to the district, to a staff member. There are apps people can use to report things as well,” Domencic added. “Report things. If you hear something, if you see something posted online — that cooperation and that vigilance is a critical aspect of our safety. … And if you know somebody is struggling with mental health issues, help us to get them help.”
Also, he said, “we need to continue to promote the idea of civility and respect. People should have a genuine care, a concern and compassion for their neighbor. Adults need to remember that, when they use social media, children are watching.”
‘Heartbroken by the events’
“We all are heartbroken by the events that occurred in Uvalde, Texas,” Arthur Abrom, superintendent of Lebanon School District, told LebTown. “As a school leader, having a safe school environment where students can come and learn without fear of external threats, is paramount to their individual academic success.
“In the Lebanon School District, we employ a variety of safety measures ranging from our SchoolGate Guardian software, where all guests and visitors must be cleared through before entering our buildings, as well as physical security guards at points of entry,” Abrom added. “We have invested in two School Police Officers who work very closely with local law enforcement in a proactive fashion to ensure any possible threats are investigated. We also provide ongoing training and drill preparation for our staff and students in all of our sites.”
“Safety needs to be the top priority in any school district,” agreed Gary Messinger, superintendent for Northern Lebanon School District. “Northern Lebanon has established clear procedures for emergency situations and we practice those procedures with drills that include staff and students. We work closely with our school police officer as well as local and state responders to not only prepare for these events, but to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of our procedures throughout the year.”
Nationally, he said, “it is important for schools to continually be reviewing and adjusting their procedures with internal feedback as well as with input from external agencies. Schools need to consistently be analyzing their responses, looking for weak spots, and then making adjustments to their safety plans.
“Finally, training for staff is crucial so that in an emergency situation decisions can be made quickly.”
“At the Annville-Cleona School District, we continually practice different drills from fire and severe weather drills to Response to Violent Intruder drills,” said district superintendent Krista M. Antonis. “Along with practicing, we talk with our students and staff about various scenarios that they may encounter so they can think quickly as situations change.
“It is about being responsive and knowing the options that are available in any given situation,” she said. “We are a school community whose number one priority is student safety, whether it be physical, emotional, academic, etc. To that end, our staff works together to create a district that is supportive and engaged in continual assessment and improvement of our environments.”
To prevent future incidents like the one at Ulvade, Antonis said, the community should maintain “a continued focus on building relationships with people so no one feels alone or unheard.”
“Most people want to belong and to be heard, and building relationships is a small, but effective way to break down any barriers that may guide someone astray,” she said. “We may not all agree on everything, but being kind goes a long way.
“Additionally, having strong community partnerships so students and families have resources available to them as well as feel comfortable to report concerns they may be aware of would aid in addressing potential incidents.”
‘Not just a school issue’
“Keeping our students, staff, and visitors safe is our top priority in ELCO,” Julia Vicente, superintendent for ELCO School District, told LebTown.
“Like other school districts, we maintain our All Hazard Plan, which allows us to create a safe and secure learning environment with the ability to respond promptly and appropriately in the event of an emergency,” she said.
“Whether it is prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, or recovery, the ELCO School District strives to manage every phase of emergency readiness competently and effectively,” Vicente explained. “To accomplish this, we assume a continuous improvement approach to safety and security through several strategic actions, some of which include regularly reviewing our safety protocols, conducting internal audits of our practices as well as training staff, and practicing monthly safety drills in all of our buildings and offices to implement the most effective safety/security practices. Furthermore, keeping lines of communication open among all of our stakeholders and continuing our collaboration with the Pennsylvania State Police, Millcreek Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies are equally important.”
Bernie Kepler, superintendent for Palmyra Area School District, said school safety “is the primary responsibility schools have each and every day.”
“It is a tall task for school systems in our country,” he told LebTown. “We do know that students who feel safe at school are more prepared for learning and ultimately school safety aligns with our goal of having students meet their potential academically.
“Our schools have all been designed or renovated to create secure and locked vestibules where entry to our facilities is controlled. At Palmyra Area School District our staff members are trained in crisis response and drills with students are conducted on how to respond given various situations. Ultimately, the most critical response is prevention. Student use of social media, oftentimes provides students with information that if shared with an adult can prevent a school shooting.”
Noting the Sandy Hook Promise statistics showing how often someone besides the shooter knew in advance of a potential attack, Kepler said it “is critical that when anyone sees or hears something, they say something.”
“Additionally, positive relationships play a vital role in safety in schools and in our communities at large,” he added. “Making certain that our student body at Palmyra is aware and invited to help us maintain safe campuses it vital. At PASD we meet quarterly with our first responders to discuss our plans for response, to prepare for what we are all seeing and hearing in our community. Our school-based team is trained in the use of the Safe2Say Something anonymous tip line in the Commonwealth and processes submissions at all hours of the day, if necessary. Additionally, threat assessment teams at each building are trained on how to identify and work through threat assessments, whether they be a potential of self-harm or harm to others. PASD also intends to reinstitute a school police officer position in the 2022-2023 school-year.”
The issue cannot be solved by schools alone, Kepler stressed.
“Gun violence is a larger societal issue, not just a school issue, that is best addressed with varied stakeholders involved in the discussion,” he said. “A solution starts with improved access to mental health services for individuals in need.”
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