School safety task force co-chair: York districts set bar for tackling mental health issues

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

After mounting school safety concerns, both nationally and regionally, over the past year, the state took action with a task force formed to gather input from those who know schools the best — teachers, students, parents, administrators and the community.

A full report released Monday, Aug. 27, by the governor's office detailed feedback from more than 200 people who participated in regional meetings with the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force and nearly 800 who completed online surveys.

York County set the bar for other districts and schools across the state with its discussions on mental health, said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, co-chair of the task force.

The Central York School District hosted the first of six regional meetings back in April, and "it was certainly very clear from the first day ... that mental health was a critical issue for the students of Pennsylvania," he said.

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

Residents spoke about the impact of social media, online bullying and the need to not just have more mental health professionals in schools but to identify which type of counselor best fits the job.

Superintendent Michael Snell, when reached Wednesday, Aug. 29, said after seeing Monday's report he was pleased with how much attention it gave to mental health and the stigma surrounding it.

"I think that's critically important," he said, adding that he was proud of the district's students for getting involved in that conversation.

Higher risks: The report cited data from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, given to grades six, eight, 10 and 12. Compared to numbers given for the state, York County's were worse in all categories. 

For example, in the county last year, 30.3 percent of students experienced bullying, up from 17 percent in 2015, and only 63.1 percent said adults stop bullying when they see or hear about it. Those percentages for the state were 28.2, 16.9 and 63, respectively. 

And 17.3 percent of county students reported they were bullied last year through texting or social media versus the state's 16.5 percent. 

Depression was also prevalent, with 39.6 percent reporting feeling sad or depressed most days in the past year, 18.2 having seriously considered suicide and 11.3 percent admitting to attempting it at least once. The state had percentages of 38.1, 16.5 and 10, respectively. 

Formed in March, a month after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead, the task force was created to identify these and other vulnerabilities that affect school safety and could lead to violence.

More:York County schools on edge after Parkland, threats

More:How the Parkland teens are leading a worldwide movement

A bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly would allow local leaders to discuss school safety plans in executive session. (AP/photo)

Since January, 32 people, 26 of them students, were shot and killed in 14 incidents that occurred on school property, buses or at school-sponsored events nationally, according to statistics cited in the report. 

And since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012, more than 400 people have been shot or killed in more than 200 school shootings, the report stated, based on information from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.

The task force report identified a few key areas to target for solutions.

Communication: One is the lack of communication between professionals who serve students and the students themselves. 

Students were described as one of the most knowledgeable resources for identifying troubled peers, before teachers, staff and administrators — but they were hesitant to reach out to adults they didn't trust.

They asked for more opportunities to engage with faculty and staff and a greater role in decision-making, such as through student summits.

State residents recognized the need to share student records to aid in school safety, and the task force proposed having legislation that would allow exceptions to confidentiality laws for law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies. 

The task force also suggested a multidisciplinary team approach to safety between teachers, administration, mental health personnel, school resource officers, coaches and community partners.

Communities in Schools, which partners with community-based organizations, is utilized by districts such as York City.

The task force recommended the state Board of Education revise health education standards to include social, mental and emotional health because student-to-student connections help prevent isolation.

Pennsylvania is already one of eight states to include a social-emotional learning component in pre-K through second grade, but the task force advises that should expand to older students.

Mental health: Mental health had a strong focus throughout the report, especially the most frequently reported barrier to treatment: stigma.

One state resident mentioned the York County Mental Health Alliance as an agency working to end stigma and increase access to services, and on Thursday, Aug. 30, Central York High School will host Mike Veny, who wrote a book about the topic.

The state is currently below the recommended number of physical and mental health professionals per student by national and statewide organizations, and schools need funding for more hires, especially in low-income and remote communities, the report said.

The task force advised that administration work with the Legislature on a workforce study to assess staffing gaps.

In regard to bullying, administrators should work toward updating the anti-bullying Act 26 of 2015, and the Board of Education should provide more clarity on which incidents must be reported to law enforcement, according to the task force.

More:York County youth hold town hall on mental health

One suggestion from the task force was to start student screening for mental health needs as early as elementary school and make it a requirement.

Physical security: In the forefront of the conversation on school safety are physical security measures to keep intruders out of schools.

Communities suggested safe entrances, locks on classrooms doors, added precautions at after-school events and better training to prepare for a shooter — such as student-led drills for when adults might not be present.

And there was support for preventing children’s access to firearms through safe storage.

West York Area Assistant Superintendent Erin Holman said she had not yet gotten a chance to review the task force report but that school safety is always at the forefront of discussion at the district — which made recent changes such as security upgrades to the middle school and high school entrances, and adding cameras.

But students also were concerned with threats inside the school — from fellow students or staff members.

To prepare, state residents suggested unannounced law enforcement visits, education on shooter profiles, coordinated protocols that only a few would know and programs that allow volunteers to monitor the halls.

Communities expressed support for school law enforcement, with the stipulation that they need more training in racial bias and working with marginalized populations. 

South Western School District recently employed armed security guards, and the school board reported positive feedback on social media. 

Holman said since hiring two new school resource officers, West York students feel safer — not to mention the officers chosen had patrolled buildings at the end of the previous year, so she can already see positive relationships being formed.

More:South Western approves armed guard contract, passes tax increase

More:West York school board approves two school resource officers

West York Area School District Superintendent Todd Davies stands with members of the West Manchester township and police department after presenting a gift of a bulldog statue to honor the new school resource officers at the school board meeting Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Several other districts in York County contracted school resource officers for 2018-19, and Central York reported at an Aug. 13 planning meeting that the school board might be considering a school police department.

Next steps: Moving forward, Auditor General DePasquale said, it's going to take some time to implement changes.

"The problem is so complex," he said, and the report recognizes solutions are not a "one size fits all" model.

Multiple agencies are on the task, and for his part, DePasquale said he will communicate with administration and school boards about the issues, also incorporating safety concerns into routine audits.

"This is really the launching-off point," he said.