HARRISBURG — As public school safety has been a concern, a state Senate committee Wednesday shifted the magnifying glass onto colleges, parochial schools and preschools.
The comments and testimony came one month after several public school and law enforcement officials from across the state told the same Senate panel that armed officers in public K-12 schools are an unfortunate necessity. While the arming of officers was raised once again,testimony focused on emergency evacuation plans, the need for additional funding to offset security upgrade costs and the idea that more and more schools and day care centers need to be more vigilant.
Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee heard from 11 who testified, including Tom Leary, the president of the Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Bill Barrett, the director of LCCC’s campus security and safety office, and Bill Grant, the chief executive officer of the Hildebrandt Learning Centers, which has 44 child care centers in Pennsylvania.
Emergency preparedness plans for all campuses that educate children are being looked at more in the wake of multiple deadly shootings across the nation.
Grant said each of the Hildebrandt Learning Centers has locked doors accessible only with a key fab or code and noted this was not common practice across the state. He suggested the Department of Public Welfare should require a locked-door system as a licensing requirement.
But some senators were concerned about added costs and potential fallout, including smaller child care centers closing down.
“That’s the last thing we want to see,” Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Fleetwood, said.
Grant, who is also a Dallas Township supervisor, said he knows it is a cost issue but “it’s one more firewall to protect our children.”
The Hildebrandt Learning Centers has local sites at King’s College and in Lehman, Plains and Dallas townships and Shickshinny. Grant said armed guards are not at the majority of the centers, but after the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 1995, the federal government began providing an armed guard for the center’s location in the Social Security Building in Plains Township.
That is a rarity, not common practice, said Diane Barber, the director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association.
“I don’t know of any child care centers with an armed guard except in exceptional circumstances,” Barber said.
Grant said the child care industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades as providing safety and protection for staff and children has become almost as important as educating the children.
“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have security systems. We didn’t have to,” Grant said. But that’s changed and, he said, parents appreciate that extra level of protection.
Also discussing the cost of increased security was Livia Riley, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
While saying, “I think no school is safe,” she noted diocese schools do not have armed guards or police, mostly because of funding reasons.
Though if it were feasible, some parochial schools would, one panelist said.
“All of our diocese schools said they’d be interested in the availability of a school resource officer,” said Sean P. McAleer, the director of education for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which includes all Catholic Diocese schools in the state.