School safety issues:
Lehigh Valley politicians, school superintendents, law enforcement, an advocacy group, and high school students came together for a discussion on school safety March 1 at PBS 39’s studio.
Representatives from the National Rifle Association declined to attend the forum in Bethlehem, even though they were invited, according to host and moderator Tracy Yatsko.
Yatsko conducted the forum with high schoolers asking questions, and panelists answering questions.
KidsPeace Psychiatric Hospital, Orefield, was an event sponsor.
Shavon Smith, a sophomore at Louis E. Dieruff High School, Allentown, asked Bethlehem Police Department Deputy Chief Todd Repsher if there is a way students can report suspicions to authorities without being noticed by other students.
“Yes,” Repsher said. “Students can go to their school resource officer.”
William Allen High School junior Edwin Chalus asked Repsher if he recommended arming teachers.
Repsher said as a former SWAT member, he did not recommend arming teachers, adding if he had to go into a school shooter situation, having another armed person is something he or other officers would have to contend with, in addition to what was going on.
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-132nd, also spoke.
“This whole debate about arming teachers is a distraction from addressing the real issue of enacting real gun control.”
Schlossberg also responded to a question from Georgia Sukza, a junior from Liberty High School.
“Arming teachers is absolutely an atrocious idea,” Schlossberg said.
This view, however, was not shared by state Rep. Gary Day, R-187th.
“There are some teachers who would come forward and say, ‘Hey, I’m ready to take on this responsibility,’” Day said. “Legislatures could have policies in place that require certain types of training.”
School districts would need to have policies in place to guide armed teachers, Day said, adding he would feel more confident having an armed teacher in a “defensive position” in a class room.
“Running into the face of battle is quite a harrowing thing,” he said. “We need to open up our minds.
“We need to stop saying, ‘I’m with the NRA or I’m against the NRA on everything.’ We need to open up our minds and have the NRA talk to us about gun safety.
“Let the ACLU talk to us about mental health and involuntary commitment. Let them help us come to the conclusions we need to come to.”
Chalas asked Day why Congress has not been able to push through any significant legislation on gun reform.
“It’s hard for me to speak for the national Republicans, but I’ll do my best,” Day said.
He said President Donald Trump recently made comments about gun control that “shocked” Republican Congressmen.
Day said Democrats “went into their foxholes and said, ‘Well, he had better not backtrack from that’ rather than help him with that issue.”
Day said the shooter in the Parkland, Fla. story had been “screaming for help.”
He made a case for “filling those gaps” the shooter fell though.
Bethlehem Chapter President of the NAACP Esther Lee, speaking from the floor, said her organization is against arming teachers.
She also asked how raising the age for purchasing guns would reduce the murder rate.
State Rep. Maureen Madden, D-115th, said she has proposed central reform including closing gun show loopholes for the sale of guns.
“I’ve never taken any money from gun lobbies,” Madden said, adding she is proud of the “F” grade she has from the NRA.
Whitehall High School senior Jerome Wah questioned the panel.
“What is your view on having metal detectors in all schools?” he asked.
“I don’t think it is an effective solution,” responded Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy. “It makes people feel good, but it would really not be safe.
“A courthouse can funnel people in through one or two entrances, but at schools, particularly high schools, unless metal detectors are used 100 percent of the time, they lose their effectiveness.”
Roy pointed out high schools and middle schools have a huge number of events going on at all hours.
“An active shooter is going to do damage at the metal detector spot and move on,” he said. “It’s a false sense of security.”
Parkland School District Superintendent Richard Sniscak followed up on Roy’s point.
“We have three entrances and as many as 3,200 students,” he said, referring to Parkland High School. “It would take a long time for all those students to access through a metal detector. Besides a false sense of security, there would be many logistical problems.”
Mackenzie Kirchner, a sophomore at Parkland, next questioned the panel.
“How can you cope with fear of going to school every day after hearing about or living through a tragedy like school shootings?” Kirchner asked.
Beth Tomlinson, director for education at United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley, responded.
Tomlinson said she advocates for school-based mental health centers and full-time mental health counselors for any student facing emotional problems.
She said she is working on a campaign so people feel comfortable asking for help.
Yatsko, directed her comment to Tomlinson.
“Any time there are mass shootings, we hear talk about mental health,” Yatsko said. “How is that stigma harmful to what mental health truly is?”
“Unfortunately, mental health really is stigmatized,” Tomlinson replied. “There is quick jump to mental health as an excuse for mass shootings.”
“It’s important schools provide the access to mental health services at school,” Sniscak added. “Students are less likely to get help after they go home. We need to bridge that gap.”
Roy then addressed the issue.
“The challenge is finding the resources,” Roy said. “The demand for services outpaces the supply by far.”
Paige Kaczyski, a junior at East Stroudsburg High School, commented next.
“We’ve been conditioned to walk out when hear the fire alarms,” Kaczyski said. “Would changing this be more catastrophic than helpful?”
Sniscak responded to the question.
“There have been five cases nationally where alarms have been pulled so the shooter could access more victims,” he said. “We have to be smarter than that.
“Now we have changed in Parkland. We’re going to make unannounced fire alarms. We are going to tell our staff to stay in place until an announcement is made.”
Schlossberg said he is an advocate for education and mental health, but also is for “reasonable” gun control.
“No doubt about it,” Schlossberg said.
“There are broader reasons for school violence. School safety has become a problem because we haven’t addressed the root problems.”
Those problems, according to Schlossberg, include failure to take care of poverty, failure to take care of the poor and failure to create good jobs.
“If we actually, really and truly want to address this problem, we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Schlossberg said. “And it’s as simple as that.”