Local School Superintendents Discuss School Safety

According to statistics from Education Week, 2022 has already seen 27 school shootings with injuries and deaths in the U.S., with 83 people killed or injured. The grim tally includes the deaths of 24 children.

School superintendents in the country’s 130,000 public and private schools are entrusted every school day to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for approximately 55 million elementary and secondary students.

To learn how local districts meet the challenge, Gettysburg Connection talked with Littlestown Area School District Superintendent Christopher Bigger, Bermudian Springs School District Superintendent Dr. Shane Hotchkiss, and Gettysburg Area School District Superintendent Jason Perrin.

“Safety has been a priority for many years; even prior to my tenure,” said Perrin. “We utilize a continuous improvement model, meaning we are always looking for reasonable and sustainable ways to maximize safety for our school community. We utilize external audits completed by third party vendors and by the PA State Police to assist in our improvement efforts.”

The Pennsylvania Public School Code (Act 44) requires school districts to appoint school safety and security coordinators, establish mandatory school safety training for school employees, and establish standards for school police, resource officers, and security guards.

Following Act 44, each district takes similar approaches to their daily safety procedures including both “hard” and “soft” techniques.

On the “hard” side, districts have only a single point of entry to each building, require ID for entry, use security cameras, and hold evacuation and emergency protocol training for staff and students.

But there is also a “soft side” that involves a focus on the mental health of students and faculty, as well as simply getting to know the students within the district.  “The power of Littlestown safety is in the number of counselors and support staff we have,” said Bigger. “These prevention safety measures can allow us to know and intervene before something happens.”

Bigger said Littlestown has a licensed social worker, licensed mental health therapist, and a psychologist that assist in providing daily assistance.

“We contract services through Cognitive Health Solutions to provide the program and staffing using ESSERS federal COVID dollars,” Bigger said.  “Students referred to the child study team in each building are analyzed for level of need and assigned an intervention based on staffing.  Sometimes the classroom teacher or the school counselor implements a strategy.”

Bermudian also has growing resources related to mental health. “We have a school counselor in each of our buildings and a counselor that moves between the middle and high school,” said Hotchkiss.  “Additionally, we have had a substance abuse counselor for quite some time and have expanded her role in our district to include all buildings.”

Bermudian additionally began utilizing Care Solice last year, which ensures that communities can reach reliable mental health services no matter the circumstances.

As for the “hard” side of safety, Hotchkiss said Bermudian uses the “ALICE” program, provided by a third party, for safety training. ALICE is an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

“We use ALICE as a tool. These are options and strategies for students and staff to utilize in an emergency,” said Hotchkiss.  “We revisit these drills and practices during faculty meetings.”

ALICE training includes modules appropriate for different grade levels, using storybooks, hands-on activities, worksheets, and other methods. The curriculum provides language and concepts to facilitate learning about stranger danger, assault, abduction, and abuse at an age-appropriate level.

Each district also works within the state’s youth violence prevention program Safe2SayPA. The program, run by the state Attorney General’s office, teaches children to recognize warning signs and signals, especially on social media, from individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others and to “say something before it is too late.”

Hotkchiss said the program allows students to anonymously report unsafe and potentially dangerous activities, and helps students and staff to be diligent and observant, and to ask questions.

Bigger recalled how a large change in security measures occurred in Adams County following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“Post Parkland is when Adams County became much more conscious and consistent,” he said. “When Uvalde happened, we asked ourselves if we were still being consistent.  We keep trying to get better every year.”

Bigger said Littlestown is as “as prepared as possible to react in an emergency,” and has employed a school resource safety officer since 2018.

“The officer leads staff training, follows through on safety improvements, and leads efforts to ensure student, staff, and family compliance with safety procedures,” said Bigger.  “Since the hiring of a safety officer, our safety efforts have increased substantially, and we are maintaining the efforts deployed. For example, when we are required to perform safety drills the officer will coordinate the drills and then evaluate for improvement efforts.”

“I think in trying to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning, while providing security and safety, we are in a good spot,” said Hotchkiss.

“I believe all of our current efforts are both reasonable and sustainable in a public school environment,” said Perrin. “We will always review our protocols and make adjustments as warranted to mitigate safety concerns.”

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Laken Franchetti is a senior  at Gettysburg College pursuing a B.A. in English with a writing concentration and history. She serves as Editor in Chief for The Gettysburgian and the online magazine Her Campus and has been a contributing editor for the literary magazine The Mercury.

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