Don’t let Pa. lawmakers short-change our children’s safety

16 Jun 2017

Shari Dym, Director of Development at the Silver Academy in Harrisburg, PA, remembers acutely what she felt on February 28, 2017.

On an unusually warm Tuesday morning, alarm bells rang throughout the Jewish Community Center in which this Jewish day school is housed. The students, figuring this was a regular drill, nonchalantly followed the rehearsed procedures. The staff, however, knew the bomb threat was real.

It was several hours later–after the police deemed the building safe–that the anxiety kicked in. “It was a post-trauma situation,” Dym explained. “The fear and the angst is something that I will never be able to explain to anybody, when you are responsible for 200 people’s children. And you can never think this is just a hoax, because you don’t want to be around the day it’s not.”

The Silver Academy received state funding nearly three years ago to hire a police officer, and Dym identified this officer as playing a tremendous role in their security measures: “When we had our bomb threat, thank goodness we had that security guard, because we had our complete evacuation in place–all the steps that we follow.”

Thirteen days after the Silver Academy evacuated its students, and only three miles away, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives considered a bill to terminate security funding for all Pennsylvania schools, whether nonpublic or public.

Funding to hire a security guard was provided to the Silver Academy in 2014 as part of Pennsylvania’s Office for Safe Schools’ Targeted Grants Program.

This program began in 2013, when Act 70 allowed public schools to apply for up to $40,000 grants to hire police officers. Nonpublic schools were theoretically included in the law, but they could not apply for grants directly and had to rely on municipalities to apply on their behalf.

Many municipalities refused because of the expense involved.

In 2014–after lobbying by Teach PA, a project of the Orthodox Union–Governor Tom Corbett approved an amendment to remove this impediment.

The Silver Academy, along with Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, and three other nonpublic schools, were among 31 Pennsylvania schools that received grants for security personnel in 2014.

This funding was especially important for the Silver Academy, because it does not qualify for grants via the federal government’s Urban Areas Security Initiative, which targets schools in highly populated cities.

Despite this early and commendable improvement in the PA Safe Schools legislation, several issues remained.

For one, schools only receive up to $20,000 in the second year of their grant; and in the third year, they get nothing.

Second, the legislation includes another type of grant only available to public schools.

Under the Safe Schools Initiative Targeted Grant Program, public schools can apply for funding for security equipment, such as protective lighting and surveillance technology. Nonpublic schools are not eligible.

But now the General Assembly is contemplating a complete elimination of school security funding for the 2018 fiscal year.

As of April 6th, this bill is in the hands of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

If it progresses to law, it would be a huge step backward for a state that has improved the daily safety of thousands of students across the Commonwealth.

In the wake of bomb threats, religiously motivated vandalism, and other anti-Semitic attacks, the Pennsylvania legislature should be looking to increase and expand the Safe Schools’ Targeted Grants Program, rather than eliminate it.

The House budget would not only endanger Pennsylvania students, it would set the Keystone State back compared to other states.

When Pennsylvania passed the Safe Schools’ Targeted Grants Program, it was ahead of the curve, making it the first state to allocate funds specifically for school security personnel.

Today, several states have already implemented similar programs or are considering legislation to do so.

In neighboring New York, Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature just finalized a budget that includes a record-breaking $40 million for nonpublic schools to hire security personnel and purchase security equipment–a tremendous increase from last year’s $15 million.

Across the Delaware River, New Jersey currently provides $50 per nonpublic school student for security funding, and Teach Advocacy Network, which has six state offices, is working with legislatures to increase that number.

Instead of cutting this important program, it’s time for Pennsylvania to step up and be a leader again. The legislature and Gov. Wolf should not only maintain the Safe Schools’ Targeted Grants Program, it should expand it by allowing nonpublic schools to access the grant in subsequent years and apply the grant to both security guards and equipment.

In budget season, it’s typical for many items to end up on the chopping block, but security funds should not be one of them. We cannot put a price tag on our children’s safety.

Arielle Frankston-Morris is the director of Teach PA, a project of the Orthodox Union., May 30, 2017