2018-09-15 / Viewpoints

Taking school safety seriously

By Dolores McCracken

(Dolores McCracken is the president of the state’s largest public school teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, or PSEA).

Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., I asked the educators and support professionals who belong to PSEA to send me their ideas to make our schools safer places.

Within just one week, I received nearly 1,000 thoughtful replies. Many of those suggestions were included in school safety legislation enacted this summer and reflected in the final recommendations of a task force on school safety.

The fact that elected leaders from both parties are listening to the educators who work in our schools is good news. After all, these are the professionals who best understand how our schools work and are best positioned to identify proactive steps we can take to stop the unthinkable before it happens.

The school safety law reflects a tremendous amount of progress in a short period of time. That plan provides school districts with $60 million in safety grants for a menu of security, training, prevention, and counseling programs.

Those grants will allow school districts to identify their unique safety challenges and meet them in a cost-effective way.

The law also creates a “Safe2Say” program providing a safe and anonymous way for parents, school staff, students, and community members to report dangerous or criminal acts, threats, or instances of bullying.

We need to consider everything from student wellness to the security of school buildings, to partnerships with community leaders and law enforcement. Every school district in Pennsylvania must have the resources it needs to hire staff and identify its specific, local needs.

We must make student wellness a top priority by investing in more school counselors, school psychologists, social workers, school nurses, behavioral specialists, home and school visitors, and paraprofessionals.

There are students in every school in Pennsylvania who struggle with physical and emotional health. Those students need support and encouragement -- not blame and shame.

By focusing on student wellness, we can address a small problem before it becomes a big problem -- potentially preventing a tragedy and helping students tackle the often-invisible challenges that prevent them from excelling academically, enjoying time with friends, or mentally preparing for a bright future.

While student wellness is a top priority, so too is the physical security of our schools. The task force report recommends employing more trained, armed professionals in schools and making building improvements to enhance school safety.

Our goal is to prevent tragedies in our schools before they happen. I wish that we could have gotten to this point without the unthinkable tragedies that occurred in Parkland, Sandy Hook, and too many other schools across the nation. We continue to mourn the loss of those beautiful lives, taken much too early by senseless violence.

We also honor their memories by taking proactive steps now to make sure that tragedies like these never happen again.

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