‘We need to stop it before it happens:’ Bipartisan House coalition rolls out new school safety measures

State Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, discusses a bipartisan package of school safety bills during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, 5/18/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Barely a day after America’s latest school shooting, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives introduced a package of bills that they say could help stop future acts of violence before they happen.

The measures call for more school nurses; increased firearms and CPR training for school police and security officers; efforts to get school guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists to meet national standards; improved reporting and data collection for students who attempt or commit suicide on school grounds; and a mandatory mental health and anti-bullying curriculum for students.

At a Capitol news conference Wednesday, backers of the proposed “Beyond Safe Schools” package say the bills are designed to build on legislative authorization last year of a $60 million grant fund that districts can use to enhance physical safety and security in school buildings.

But as lawmakers reviewed the initial grant proposals, “we [recognized] that there needs to be a more comprehensive approach to dealing with school safety that involves focusing on the overall behavioral health of students,” said Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, who’s among the sponsors of the more than a dozen bills included in the package. The bills are “intended to address problems before they occur,” he added.

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old student was shot and killed, and eight more were injured, at a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in suburban Denver, Colo. Witnesses said Kendrick Castillo, a senior, lunged at the one of the accused shooters, giving his classmates time to escape, NBC News reported.

The Democratic lawmakers who attended Wednesday’s news conference said they remain concerned about the physical safety of Pennsylvania school students. But they stressed that the measures that they’re pushing are intended to address such mental health issues as depression and bullying that can lead students to harm themselves and their classmates.

“We don’t want to make schools prison-like,” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, who’s sponsoring a bill that would help districts identify and help students who are suffering from abuse and neglect at home. “The best way to do it is to help kids before they get to that point.”

There’s a long-established link between mental health issues and acts of violence, including school shootings — though those issues are far from the only determining factor.

Still, “at least 59 percent of the 185 public mass shootings that took place in the United States from 1900 through 2017 were carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack,” Minnesota Corrections Secretary Grant Duwe and Bates College sociologist Michael Rocque wrote in a February 2018 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

Rich Askey, the president of Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union, said the bills would address key staffing issues in school districts across the state.

“I’ve heard time and time again about the incredible demands placed on school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers,” Askey, head of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said. “These are the the people who work so hard to keep our students healthy and to support them when they have social and emotional challenges.”

Miller is partnering with a fellow Allegheny County lawmaker, Republican Rep. Jason Ortitay, on a depression-screening bill, as well as a proposal that requires districts to report attempted suicides and suicides that occur on school grounds to the state Office of Safe Schools.

Ortitay said he think it’s “sad we even have to consider an issue like this. But establishing this information [on suicide] and analyzing it can lead to saving lives.”

“Being proactive is something we need to do a better job of, especially in regards to school safety,” he added. “That’s why I worked with PSEA and the school board association to draft a bill on creating school safety threat assessment teams. The point is to get out in front of these things and get these kids the help they need before bad things happen.”

Rep. Greg Rothman, a Cumberland County Republican, is among the co-sponsors of a bill requiring bullying prevention to be taught from K-12. He said in a text message that “bullying is a serious problem [that] follows our children home,” because of the advent of social media.

“When I was a kid they told us ‘sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt me,'” Rothman said. “We now know that words can hurt and that bullying needs to be addressed.”

Miller and other lawmakers at Wednesday’s news conference could not say how much the proposals would cost the taxpayers if they are enacted into law. He said some would be of minimal or no cost, because they only require administrative changes to existing policies. He acknowledged that others, which call for hiring more school nurses and more librarians, would come with a public cost.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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