With new tip line in place, lawmakers push schools to address reported threats

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    In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Pennsylvania’s Legislature last year poured $60 million into school safety funding while also creating a statewide tip line to report threats of violence.

    Now, the House and Senate are advancing legislation to mandate school districts use that information for prevention.

    Under near-identical bills advanced in both chambers Tuesday, schools would be required to set up a task force to analyze and react to threats or dangerous behavior reported to the Safe2Say program. Students can report suspicious activity by phone or app to the program, run by the state Attorney General’s office.

    In the 2015-16 school year, 42 percent of public schools nationwide had a threat assessment team in place, according to the federal School Survey on Crime and Safety.

    Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, is pushing the House version of the legislation. His bill, similar to the Senate version sponsored by Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would require the creation of a threat assessment committee in every public school district.

    The committee would be made up of school employees with expertise in health, counseling, or social work; special education; and school administration. If available on staff, the committee would also include experts in school security or law enforcement, juvenile probation, and mental health.

    “If a kid is having issues at school, let’s get him help, or her help, before something happens,” Ortitay told the Capital-Star after his bill passed the House Education Committee unanimously on Tuesday. “If they’re depressed, let’s get them to a specialist, we notify the parents. Same thing if they have violent tendencies [or] are bullying people.”

    The school committee would be responsible to reacting to threats, such as directing a troubled student to mental health resources.

    Ortitay is also sponsoring related legislation to raise the age of consent for mental health treatment from 14 to 18. Currently, teenagers 14 and older may decline counseling that a parent might want for the child. That bill passed the House unanimously last week.

    The idea of requiring threat assessment committees resulted in some grumbling from Republican lawmakers, who worry about an unfunded mandate. Still, the bill has the backing of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest state teachers’ union.

    “Taken together, [Ortitay and Costa’s] measures will definitely make a difference in our schools. We encourage lawmakers to continue the good work they’ve done on school safety initiatives and send these bills to the governor’s desk,” PSEA President Rich Askey said in a statement.

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