State lawmakers listen to ideas on safety at schools
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HARRISBURG -- The shooting in Newtown, Conn., was never far from the discussion Wednesday as two panels of state senators heard testimony on school safety from educators, police officers and emergency coordinators.
"We need to look at today as the day the game changes," said Officer John Bruner of the South Strabane Police Department in Washington County. "The only thing that's a higher priority than teaching our schoolchildren is keeping them safe."
Senators also heard from Superintendent Michael Strutt of the Butler Area School District, where just days before the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School the school board had approved arming school police officers. After the Friday shooting, the district expedited the process, so the officers reported to school the following Monday.
"We know that they are rare events, but when they happen, they are horrific," Mr. Strutt said later. "So we wanted to be prepared should anyone walk into one of our schools with intention to do harm to one of our children or staff members."
Mr. Strutt told the senators that his district had to receive authorization to arm retired state troopers, and he recommended changes to a requirement that guards possess municipal, rather than state, police training.
Other suggestions from witnesses included improving coordination among various emergency responders and training all school workers on how to handle emergencies.
Legislation from Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, would boost funding from $500,000 to $10 million annually for school safety grants that could be used for armed security or other measures, such as planning or the purchase of metal detectors and other devices. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed making new funding available to districts -- which they could use for safety measures or in other specified areas -- through proceeds from privatizing the state liquor system.
At the hearing, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, expressed doubt that even armed guards could stop a well-equipped intruder.
"It's just very difficult for a retired security guard with a gun to confront someone armed as if they're invading a small country," he said. "While it certainly wouldn't hurt to have an armed guard at every school, we also should be talking about ways to make sure people don't show up at schools armed to the teeth."
After the hearing, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne and chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said she expects senators will review the testimony and return in a few months with recommendations.
First Published February 14, 2013 12:00 am