Central York talks to parents, students about safety amid threats

When two threats posted on social media last week launched a police investigation that closed Central York schools for three days, parents, students and the community voiced concerns about safety measures going forward.

Central York Superintendent Michael Snell provides opening comments during a town-hall-style community meeting to discuss school safety following last week's threats, allegedly made by a 13-year-old middle school student, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

More than 150 people filled the Central York High School auditorium Wednesday, Feb. 28, for a town meeting on safety and security after a 13-year-old girl from the district's middle school was charged with making the threats.

Central York Superintendent Michael Snell was joined by seven panelists to answer community questions and concerns.

Many who spoke thanked the district for its decision to close the schools, despite the inconvenience, saying that they'd rather be safe than sorry.

However, not everyone thought the disruption to schools was necessary.

Mike Alessandroni, principal at Northeastern Middle School in neighboring Northeastern School District, has two students in Central and said his family has never felt unsafe.

"Have we ever had violence when we had a heads-up?" he asked the panel. 

More:Community exhales as Central York students back to school

More:Girl, 13, charged in Central York threats

Michael Alessandroni, a Central York School District parent and principal at Northeastern Middle School, says "we have never, ever felt that our two students have ever been unsafe," during a town-hall-style meeting to discuss school safety following last week's threats, allegedly made by a 13-year-old middle school student, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

"My biggest concern is that three days were compromised, and I wanted to know what the district has learned as a result of that," Alessandroni added.

The panel confirmed that historically, threats rarely precede violence.

"Most, if not all ... are intended to disrupt the district," Alessandroni said.

"I understand the data that's out there," said Springettsbury Township Police Chief Dan Stump, "but I don't want to be the first with anything." 

Responses: Several people in the community brought up the need for better mental health support services, recognizing the link between bullies or students underserved mentally and school violence. 

In the wake of the recent threats, the question of how to best equip teachers to protect students also was a major concern. 

More:State, local educators: Arming teachers a terrible idea

"Can you commit, regardless of any policy or legislation that happens, to saying that there will not be guns in the hands of teachers in this school district?" Springettsbury Township resident Matthew Grimes asked Snell.

"Philosophically, I am opposed to it," the superintendent said. 

Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said two state bills would allow school employees to be armed, but both would leave the decision up to school boards.

Bentzel, however, said he also opposes the idea.

Central York School District Superintendent Michael Snell answers a parent's question during a community meeting to discuss school safety following last week's threats, allegedly made by a 13-year-old middle school student, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

"There are a tremendous amount of issues with anyone carrying a firearm in a school," he said.

Student voices: Some students who spoke during the question-and-answer session expressed disappointment that their voices were not being heard, whether they were not able to give input on school decisions or not being taken seriously about safety concerns.

WellSpan Health psychologist Kathy Jansen said one way students can be a part of decisions is to take action in response to threats and tragedies.

More:VIDEO: Spring Grove teen Amy Gunzelman speaks at women's march on Philadelphia

Women's March Youth Empower is planning a national school walkout March 14 in response to gun violence in schools. Students will walk out of schools for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 lives lost in the Parkland, Florida, shooting on its one-month anniversary.

Another student-run national walkout is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, according to the event's Twitter page.

Snell said he understood the idea of national student walkouts but added he was against them for safety reasons.

"The moment that several hundred to a thousand students want to walk outside of the building, that causes me and a lot of other people in this room alarm," he said.

"I believe in it, and I'm a party to your cause," Snell added. "I'm also responsible for your safety." 

As a solution, Central York School District resident Amandah Stem mentioned March for Our Lives, a march to address gun violence in schools Saturday, March 24, in Washington, D.C.

Stem, who is involved in a sister march in York City scheduled for the same day, acknowledged the safety concerns of walkouts and believes the march will provide a safe space for students to have their voices heard.

More:Chief: Springetts PD better prepared after lessons learned from school threats

Protocols: For Central York's part in ensuring safety in its schools, the district has many security protocols in place, which Snell reviewed at the meeting.

Safety measures the district employs include security cameras, exterior door locks, a visitor-management system — which provides a background check and a record of who's coming or going in district buildings each day — locked classroom doors throughout the day and emergency response plans for various scenarios including intruders and active shooters.

The district also has measures in place for students and parents to report suspicious activities or threats — including the 24/7 Panther Hotline — and has increased access to mental health services.