032819: Taking holistic approach, Safety Committee makes its recommendations to School Board

By Gary Weckselblatt

The Community Safety Committee, working since September on ways to improve school safety, delivered its recommendations to the Quakertown Community School Board on March 28, 2019.

During a 52-minute presentation, four committee members -- chairwoman Diane Richino, Catherine Bianco, Amy Harwick and Stephanie Zajkowski -- described the committee's holistic approach and broke up their recommendations along four subject areas:

  • Facilities and Equipment
  • Protocols and Staff Action
  • Supports for Students
  • Community Awareness

The speakers explained how the thought process of committee members evolved over a six-month period based on their readings and research, employing best practices and not opinion. They heard presentations and took part in conversations with district staff, including high school Principal Dr. David Finnerty, Strayer Principal Dr. Jennifer Bubser, School Resource Officer Bob Lee, Director of Pupil Services Janet Pelone, and Assistant Superintendent Nancianne Edwards, the district's safety coordinator who facilitated committee meetings. There was also an informal meeting with high school students that Mrs. Zajkowski called "insightful," and a review of QCSD Board policy relating to student safety, wellness, discipline, bullying, drugs/weapons, terrorism, and positive behavior support.

"When I joined the committee, in my mind, safety in the schools was about an active shooter scenario," Mrs. Richino said. "While that is extraordinarily important, it's also the least likely of all the things that we've looked at to necessarily happen. While you want to prepare for that, there are a million other things we can do in the meantime that go a long ways to making a better school district and a better community."

"We went as extreme as metal detectors and SROs," Mrs. Harwick said. "But as we talked more, we learned it's more important to do the preventative and the mental health. Identifying kids that are struggling or need help. But it's also important to be prepared."

Regarding the preventative measures section of the presentation, Mrs. Bianco related a story about a Strayer student coming to school late. The school secretary "looked at the student with genuine happiness and said ‘I'm so glad you came in today. Thank you for coming in,' " Mrs. Bianco recalled. "And that makes a difference."

The school secretary is Tammy Stachel, who was lauded by Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner and the Board.

Two items were brought up repeatedly: vaping and the district's Raptor system, which calls for all visitors to have their identification run through a database of sex offenders.

"We talked extensively about vaping," Mrs. Harwick said. "Is it a health safety issue? When we spoke to students, it's an area where they felt pressured or bullied. We looked at different areas and strategies to cut down on the numbers we're seeing."

She suggested developing "outside the box training for parents" and "more training for teachers. They're the front line."

As for Raptor, Mrs. Richino said "We have heard lots of stories of parents that have become irate (when asked for their identification). If a Raptor policy is in place to protect students, we as parents should not only understand it but be willing to comply with it as well."

A recommendation calls for empowerment of staff to challenge visitors. "Parents are giving more pushback," Mrs. Harwick said. "So we want to give the staff the power to explain the situation by educating parents why we're doing this, By having signs to cut down on the frustration and explain the purpose."

Some areas in the presentation were left "intentionally vague," Mrs. Zajkowski said. "A lot of the material that we covered is highly confidential." She said a separate report with more details and specifics has been prepared for the School Board. The public presentation, which includes nearly three dozen recommendations of varying degrees, can be found here: https://www.boarddocs.com/pa/qcsd/Board.nsf/files/BAPA277071B1/$file/Parent-Comm%20Safety%20Comm%20Presentation%20%20032819.pdf

"One of the things we tried to do is to not just pour a bunch of recommendations that cost lots and lots of money that we don't have," Mrs. Richino said. "Many of our recommendations are low cost or no cost at all."

Ms. Edwards said the committee's community members "generously gave their time to make significant contributions that improved safety for everyone in the district."

Mrs. Richino, the group's chair, said the committee should continue. "What we have learned as part of this opportunity has been eye-opening for all of us," she said. "Safety in our schools is going to grow and change, and the needs of the district and what is required by the state is going to change as well. Having an ongoing body to look at this data, to understand it and to recommend changes to it on an ongoing basis is very important."

Board President Steaven Klein said he favors the continuation of the committee. "The work that you all are doing is phenomenally important. I'm blown away by your presentation. Obviously, a lot of work and effort went into this. You're seeing firsthand a lot of the things that most of us don't see."

Kaylyn Mitchell also lauded the committee's effort. "Thank you all so very much for this work," she said. "This is very comprehensive. It's information that's been enlightening for me."

Mrs. Richino praised Mrs. Pelone, the director of pupil services, saying she was "a very significant resource to us."

Of Ms. Edwards, the committee's facilitator, she said "our committee could not do its work without you. Thank you for everything. We asked you to do a lot and, as usual, it was wonderful working with you."

Heidi Johnson, the executive secretary for both Ms. Edwards and Superintendent Dr. Bill Harner was thanked for "all the writes and the rewrites and the scheduling. You are amazing."

Mrs. Richino also complimented Dr. Harner and the Board for allowing the "parents to be involved in the district."

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.

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