In the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, school officials are once again hyperfocused on school safety.
In Pennsylvania, Act 44 of 2018, enacted following the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, established several school safety programs, notably the Safe2Say Something Program and mandatory safety training for school staff.
Safe2Say Something: Run by the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, this youth violence prevention program teaches young people and adults how to recognize warning signs by individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others. They can report the potential threat through an anonymous 24/7 tip line. According to the Safe2Say website, 80% of school shooters told someone of their plan for violence, and 59% told more than one person.
In April, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a report focusing on student mental health based on the information received through the Safe2Say program. To date, the program has tallied more than 80,000 tips, three-quarters of which have been related to mental health, bullying or harassment. The report says the proliferation of social media use, coupled with problems accessing mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, has created a mental health crisis in young people.
Shapiro suggests that schools boost the number of counselors available to students to help remedy the problem. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students. However, in Pennsylvania, there is reportedly one school psychologist for every 1078 students.
Safety Training for School Personnel: Schools must provide their employees with mandatory school safety and security training for at least three hours every five years. Training through the Internet or other distance-learning communication systems is acceptable.
Mandatory training topics include behavioral health awareness, suicide and bullying awareness, and emergency training drills, including active shooter drills.
Standards for School Safety Officers and Security Guards: Act 67 of 2019, which amended Act 44, specifies the training school safety officers, resource officers and security guards must undergo. All school security personnel must complete specialized training, such as Basic School Resource Officer training offered by the National Association of School Resource Officers.
School districts can contract with third-party vendors to fill security roles. The law does not mandate armed security staff, which means school districts have the option of having armed security personnel on school property. However, armed security staff must complete Lethal Weapons Training. Act 67 does not give schools the authority to designate teachers as security personnel.
Proposed Pennsylvania Senate Bill No. 1263, sponsored by Senator Steven Santarsiero and co-sponsored by 14 other Democrat senators, would amend Act 44 and require middle schools and high schools to provide students with suicide awareness and prevention training. Additionally, school personnel would receive training to identify signs of depression, suicide and self-injury among students.
The proposed bill was introduced on June 2, days after the shooting in Uvalde. A violence prevention and social inclusion component would require schools to provide middle and high school students with violence prevention training and designate a student-led violence prevention club in K-12 schools. The Education Law Practice Group at KingSpry is carefully monitoring this proposed legislation.
Bottom Line for Schools
Schools should review their existing safety and security policies and crisis response plans to ensure that they are up to date and address any emerging school safety issues.
Schools should also take this opportunity to ensure compliance with their obligations under the Safe Schools Act, that policies such as Threat Assessment are up to date and that the requirements of these policies are being fully implemented. They should also look at the exterior of their buildings to minimize any vulnerabilities and review communication systems internally and with responders in the community. In addition, schools should look beyond defensive measures and make sure that they are meeting student mental health needs.