Focus on mental health at first meeting of Pa. task force on school safety

At the first of six regional meetings held by a statewide task force to address school safety concerns, the focus was on mental health.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the discussion on Friday, April 6, covered school counselors and the types of skills they need, the value of strong peer-group organizations for suicide prevention, the impact of bullying and what can be done to make the school structure safer.

The task force had "a pretty big discussion on mental health and anything that can help any student that’s feeling challenged mentally," he said.

More:York County youth hold town hall on mental health

"I think the governor and I both agreed from the very beginning that mental health has to be part of the discussion," he added, which falls in line with the broad consensus of the region. 

Task force: DePasquale is co-chairing Pennsylvania's School Safety Task Force, which includes representatives from the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Association of School Administrators, the Parent Teacher Association and the Association of School Nurses and Practitioners.

The goal of the task force is to gather information from communities across the region to find out how to best address safety concerns.

“Students and adults throughout Pennsylvania and our nation have built a movement for change,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release. “We must use that passion to deliver real solutions that build on the work of law enforcement and schools to keep students safe."

The task force plans to discuss where additional funding might be needed, the effectiveness of school programs, the consideration of stronger state requirements for active shooter training and other security protocols and information-sharing practices, according to the release.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale outlines the findings of an audit of the York City School District, Thursday, April 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Community knows best: Along with the task force, students, parents, school officials, law enforcement, health care experts and residents were invited to give their input.

At Friday's meeting, held at the Central York School District office in Springettsbury Township, two students from Central York — a male student from high school and a female student from middle school — contributed to the discussion, DePasquale said.

More:Central York talks to parents, students about safety amid threats

He said the task force also heard from a teacher and the superintendent of the district, school counselors and board members from multiple districts across the region, the York County district attorney and the sheriff’s office in Cumberland County.

“It was especially good today to hear the thoughts and ideas of students," he stated in the news release.

"I think too many times in Harrisburg, we don’t take enough time to listen to the people who are most impacted," he added, when reached by phone Friday. "We need more of that."

DePasquale knows not everyone will be able to make it to the meetings, but he said the task force is committed to hearing from as many people as possible. 

The public can submit school safety feedback online at

Growing concern: Regionally and nationally, safety in schools has been a growing concern. In York County, 10 school districts experienced threats within two weeks of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

More:Student charged after threat to harm staff in York City school

More:Area police say they'll take cue from school districts on walkouts

And administrators scrambled to arrange protocols for students planning to participate in national school walkouts to protest gun violence a month later. Additional walkouts are planned for April 20.

Central York also has been no stranger to threats. The district was directly impacted when two threats posted on social media forced the school to close for three days in February, pending a police investigation.

"We were all cognizant of what happened at Central," DePasquale said, saying the recent threats were one reason the location was chosen, but he noted it also was chosen because of all the good things happening in the district. 

CYSD has hosted its own safety meetings open to parents, students and residents in the region to learn and ask questions about safety, including a special presentation on cyber security led by the Attorney General's Office.

Hundreds gather during March For Our Lives, a rally to end gun violence, in York City, Saturday, March 24, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:Girl, 13, charged in Central York threats

Next steps: Following the six meetings, the task force will issue a final report by the end of June, at which point, members will present their findings for the Legislature and all executive offices to consider.

The state has been broken into six regions, DePasquale said, and the task force will hold five safety meetings in the remaining regions.

The locations and dates of the subsequent meetings have not been announced.

He does not yet know whether recommendations will be statewide or specific to different regions, but he said that's something open for discussion.

DePasquale is hopeful the task force will find ways in which to improve school safety.

"We wouldn’t be doing this unless we were optimistic that this would make a big impact," he said.