Pennsylvania eyes statewide school threats reporting system

(Pocono Record – Marc Levy/AP) Pennsylvania’s Senate advanced legislation on Wednesday to set up a state-administered program to take anonymous reports of dangerous activities or threats of violence in schools, as lawmakers explore improvements to school safety spurred by February’s school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people.

Senators approved the bill unanimously, modeling the program on the Safe2Tell program created in Colorado after 1999′s Columbine school shooting.

Pennsylvania’s efforts could include more state aid as lawmakers work in the final weeks of the fiscal year to assemble a new budget.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Wednesday that he wants to add $50 million to the state’s safe schools grant program, up from $8.5 million in the current fiscal year.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday said he wants to increase funding in the safe schools grant program, but Wolf would not say how much money he wants to add. He said discussions with top lawmakers have not settled on a specific dollar figure.

In the meantime, Wolf’s administration is in the midst of six school safety task force field hearings and administration officials say it is too early to develop policy pursuits based on what they have heard.

However, they said they have heard a lot about mental health and how treatment options do not have strong connections to schools. That creates communication and referral challenges, and school officials are looking to the state to improve that, they said.

Schools also are seeking school safety guidance and standards from the state, and administration officials said they are also hearing about the need for more outside activities that will give students more opportunities to interact with each other, as well as with teachers and other adults from the school community.

Such activities could provide more opportunities for teachers and others to create relationships and intervene in a student’s life before they become violent, said Sarah Galbally, Wolf’s policy and planning secretary.

The last task force meeting is next Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

The Senate bill, which would create the Safe2Say program, now goes to the House. Under the bill, the state attorney general’s office would administer the program and relay reports to police.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, support the bill.

The school boards association said some districts already contract with a private company to operate a school safety hotline, although it did not know how widespread the practice is.

The union said that, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, its members offered suggestions on school safety and a prominent theme was “the need to prevent tragedies before they happen, and not just respond after a tragedy occurs.”

“This bill is a good step toward preventing them from happening here,” the union’s president, Dolores McCracken, said in a statement.