Updated 4 hours ago
The cafeteria at Mt. Pleasant Area High School buzzed as 300 teenagers laughed and traded gossip while wolfing down pizza, tacos and the occasional apple.
The scene Friday afternoon was far removed from the angst that gripped students across the country in the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and teachers.
But the impact of the slayings that set off a national dialogue and debate on school safety last year was evident in the halls of the rural Pennsylvania high school, where posters advertising a Valentine’s Day dance alternated with signs advertising Safe2Say Something , the new statewide tip line designed to help prevent school violence.
As her classmates ate and chatted, Mt. Pleasant senior Madison Miller led a half-dozen upperclassmen through the lunchroom handing out stickers promoting the mobile app, hotline and website for Safe2Say Something. The tip line offers an anonymous outlet for students to report concerns about threats or threatening behavior.
“You’re actually able to take a screen shot of any scary posts or texts on social media and send it in,” said Miller, who participated in a 17-minute walk around the school track last spring to memorialize those killed in Parkland.
“That made us all aware,” she said. “It was almost a turning point that made it clear that it wasn’t just up to government, but up to us, to students, to take it on themselves to do things like this.”
Mt. Pleasant is among 3,375 public and private schools across Pennsylvania participating in the program, designed by the Sandy Hook Promise , a nonprofit organization committed to preventing gun violence against children. It was founded and is run by several family members who lost loved ones in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six school staff and faculty members.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg agreed to underwrite the Pennsylvania program run by the Attorney General’s office in the wake of debate following the Florida school shootings.
Of the 2,300 tips collected during the program’s first four weeks of operation in January, 900 prompted action to protect schools, students and others, according to data provided by the Attorney General’s office.
Students have embraced the service since it launched across Pennsylvania four weeks ago, said Kenneth Williams, the Safe and Secure Schools coordinator for Mt. Pleasant Area School District.
“It’s a very safe way for kids not to feel silly about coming forward and saying, ‘This student needs help,’ ” Williams said.
Mt. Pleasant logged its first call — forwarded from a call center in the Attorney General’s office, which is command central for the program — within 10 minutes of completing the initial training last month.
Trained agents monitor the tip center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. School officials designated to respond are on call as well. Williams said he received the first tip deemed to require immediate response within 90 seconds of it being logged in Harrisburg.
Some feared the service might become a vehicle for bullying, snitching or reporting false claims, but Williams said he has seen nothing to indicate that.
Officials say it may have already prevented a catastrophe.
Shortly after the service went live, police in Northeastern Pennsylvania responded to an anonymous tip: A 14-year-old had written on the social media app Snapchat that he intended to go on a shooting spree at Hazelton Middle School. The Safe2Say Something tip led authorities to the boy’s home, where police recovered a loaded .45-caliber Glock handgun.
More help needed
The program is one of several efforts to improve school safety that materialized in Pennsylvania in the year since the Parkland shooting. Since then, students, residents and anti-violence organizations across Pennsylvania have marched in the streets, walked out of classes and lobbied elected officials for changes to laws related to both school safety and guns. Some still question whether enough has been done to protect students.
“I have not found the conversations to be anywhere near what I would consider to be a high enough priority,” said Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon.
Miller said he hopes lawmakers will spend more time evaluating proposals related to school safety this session. So far, he’s introduced one bill directly tied to the Parkland shooting — it would require threat assessments and safety audits at schools — and several others that address other facets of student mental health and safety.
In addition to passing Act 44, which establishes several requirements for schools around safety training, standards and criteria for assessing security, lawmakers set aside $60 million in the state budget last year for school safety.
Demand for those funds has far exceeded what is available.
The first round of funding disbursed $20 million. With $40 million available for a second round, schools requested a total of $318 million in funding for safety programs, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which oversees the grants.
“A one-off infusion of cash doesn’t help them structure a program in a school,” Miller said.
Not knowing if funding will be consistent from year to year is especially risky for districts trying to hire new staff, including school police or resource officers and counselors, said Hannah Barrick, director of advocacy for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, or PASBO.
“Those costs, in particular, are challenging because it’s not just a one-time cost,” especially as districts juggle rising costs related to pensions or special education, she said.
About 200 of the state’s 500 school districts have already hired or plan to hire additional school security staff this school year, according to a fall 2018 survey conducted by PASBO. About 135 school districts hired or planned to hire additional student support staff to address behavioral health issues, survey results said.
Membership in the Pennsylvania Association of School Resource Officers, or PASRO, also is growing, said Sgt. Jeff Sgro, PASRO president and school resource officer at South Fayette School District.
The organization has picked up about 150 new members this school year, up from about 300 members during the 2016-17 school year.
In the rush to make schools safer, Sgro said administrators also need to consider how to maintain new programs or technology. That includes training for staff members.
“I think maintenance of the systems that we have in place, and upgrades for those systems as they become available, is an ongoing commitment that school districts have to take,” Sgro said. “And it can be quite expensive.”
Despite these investments of time and money, experts say it’s unclear whether anyone is safer.
“Every time there is a shooting or any major violent event that gets publicity, everyone gets scared and the public and private schools rush to check their school security or increase it,” said Jeremy D. Finn, professor of education at the State University of New York in Buffalo who studies school violence issues. “There is no evidence I know of that these security measures prevent school shootings, but it’s almost impossible to collect evidence, especially as these are rare events. You don’t know whether you’ve prevented something or whether you’ve done nothing when it doesn’t happen.”
Finn raised concerns that heightened security, whether in the form of security staff or technology such as metal detectors, could actually be harming students.
“Repeated research has shown, the larger the number of security measures, the more afraid students feel about harm,” Finn said. “It’s the opposite of what you’d want.”
And if schools are going to add additional security staff, those individuals need training on how to properly relate to students and teachers, Finn said.
“Primarily, it is expensive to have armed officers in schools,” said Sarah Daly, a professor at Saint Vincent College in Unity who studies school violence. “We also need to understand the psychological effects of that on children and that still, relatively speaking, school shootings are rare and having a police officer there until something happens may not be the best use of funds.”
An alternative is getting more counselors into schools who can work with students needing mental health or behavioral support, said Daly, who taught in schools in Camden, N.J., for 11 years before earning a doctorate in criminology.
“There is value added in someone who is trained in trauma and related problems,” Daly said. “But when I presented that notion in Harrisburg, someone referred to me as silly, idealistic and naive.”
Jamie Martines and Debra Erdley are Tribune-Review staff writers. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines. Contact Debra at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.