HARRISBURG — School districts can expect tougher inspections of safety features from the state, including scrutiny of entry points, safety drills and even construction materials, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said during a media conference Thursday.
“We will look at entrances and exits, hallways, bus procedures, entry keys, maintenance, doors and windows, visitor procedures, interior security, emergency plans,” DePasquale said, offering a long list of items that likely will be reviewed as he expands the safety component of mandated school audits.
In part because of staff cuts, DePasquale conceded, some of the school district audits had become desk audits, meaning the auditing team checked primarily paperwork rather than conducting physical inspections. Such desk audits were reserved for districts that had shown no problems in prior audits and were proven to be on sound financial and academic footing.
“Now, every single audit of every single school is going to make a deep dive into safety procedures of that school,” he said, adding that even without the extra scrutiny, the office has found safety concerns. Those include lack of a single point of entry, unlocked doors that should have been locked, failure to conduct regular ground patrols, safety training for all staff, and cases where administrators would check boxes on forms saying fire drills had been held when they had not.
Even simple things can make a difference, he said, such as doors properly labeled to help emergency responders do their jobs, signs directing visitors to the main office, maintaining accurate delivery logs, and having fences around play areas.
“I will visit schools to meet with students, teachers, parents, law enforcement and school administrators in order to review and make improvements in how our audits can improve the safety of our schools,” DePasquale said.
The office will also expand the list of people who see confidential school safety audit reports to include the Pennsylvania State Police, the state attorney general and local police departments. Currently, the results are shared with only the school district superintendent and safety officers.
DePasquale is also pushing for added safety features to be incorporated into school construction and renovation projects. “They are not going to be the equivalent of a military fortified base, but there are things I believe can be done to make them safer,” he said.
Asked about the cost of enhanced safety features, DePasquale suggested some would be inexpensive, such as trimming tree branches away from a window so police and emergency responders have clear lines of sight. But, he added, more expensive changes should not be ruled out solely on the basis of cost.
“If there are additional construction steps that should be taken, I would ask parents and students in Florida if they would rather have those costs up front or afterward,” he said, referring to the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
DePasquale’s announced changes are part of a larger movement to improve school security. Locally, districts have also reacted. Wilkes-Barre Area began requiring all students entering the three high schools to go through metal detectors. The Hanover Area School Board voted to buy security camera systems for the district’s three elementary buildings, and Superintendent William Jones held a public meeting this week to discuss other safety improvements.
DePasquale’s announcement came on the same day the state House’s Education Committee announced a hearing March 15 to hear testimony from experts, review current safety rules and come up with recommendations to improve school safety.
“The most serious thing a student should worry about in school is a pop quiz in algebra,” DePasquale said. “And if you do your work, you shouldn’t even have to worry about that.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish