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EDITORIAL: Keep school-safety talks public

York Dispatch

As education officials strive to develop strategies for combatting the ongoing scourge of gun violence in public schools, there is no shortage of interest from parents and taxpayers. Indeed, those two vital stakeholders should have a strong voice in community conversations regarding safety strategies.

But if a bill pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature becomes law, they will have virtually no voice at all.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, would make it legal for education and municipal officials to discuss school safety plans in executive session. That is, absent the public.

More:Pa. bill would keep school safety plans out of public eye

Republican Sens. Mike Regan and Mike Folmer, who represent parts of York County, helped introduce the bill. Thanks, guys … for nothing.

The makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman High for the seventeen killed in the Parkland massacre. (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

It’s hard to think of an issue more important to parents and the taxpayers who shovel millions of dollars into local district coffers than school safety — or one that generates more interest. And rightly so.

It is not an exaggeration to point out that the safety of school students has become a life-or-death issue. Paroxysms of violence — most recently in Parkland, Florida — routinely leave school children dead, injured, bereaved and traumatized.

More:Gunman kills at least 17 people at Florida high school

Parents have a right to know how their school leaders plan to respond — especially if Pennsylvania adopts a bill along the lines of one now proposed in the Senate, which would allow teachers and other school workers to access firearms on school grounds.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-York and Lebanon, answers questions regarding Senate Bill 76 during a community education session hosted by the York Suburban school board Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at York Suburban High School, in Spring Garden Township. The program also featured a presentation from Wayne McCullough of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO). Amanda J. Cain photo

But that might not be the case if the Reagan- and Folmer-backed bill becomes law. And already in Dover, school officials are being less than forthcoming in outlining potential new safety policies.

That won’t fly. Nor should it.

An unprecedented series of hearings — public hearings, we hasten to add — in the Pennsylvania House last month — made clear that there is no shortage of ideas when it comes to combating gun violence in public schools.

More:Pennsylvania House holds gun violence prevention hearings

From arming teachers to tighter gun-control laws, from new mental-health measures to expanded domestic-violence protections, from creating a tip line for reports of possible threats to equipping schools with “trauma bags” for aiding shooting victims, there were dozens of ideas offered up.

Sen. Mike Regan (R-31) joins fellow state lawmakers and Humane Society representatives to present the new law concerning tethering of pets, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.  John A. Pavoncello photo

House leaders are now discussing the proposals with an eye toward identifying those with the potential to do the most good. Advocacy groups will testify at a daylong hearing this month, and the public has been invited to submit written testimony to the office of House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County.

That’s more like it.

School officials in Dover, not to mention Sens. Tomlinson, Regan and Folmer, should take note. The Senate bill would not only close off public access to formal discussion on school security, it would prevent related documents from being accessed under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know laws. In fact, any information that details “emergency preparedness” plans would be protected, the bill says. 

This massive step backward in public disclosure has no place in Pennsylvania law, does nothing to make students safer and leaves parents in the dark about some of the most important policies their children’s schools are undertaking.

Discussions on improving school safety must be serious, inclusive and transparent. As the House hearings last month demonstrated, there are a lot of potentially productive ideas to pursue. The Senate bill moving school security discussions behind closed doors is not one of them.