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HERMITAGE — With the school year still a few weeks off, the Artman Elementary School cafeteria in Hermitage was bustling with activity Tuesday morning.

Instead of students, it was filled with legislators, educators, officials and first responders who all had one concern in mind: how to keep students safe.

With $60 million for school security in the state’s 2018-19 budget, Republican state Sen. Michele Brooks said it was important to hear concerns from those “on the front lines and in the trenches.”

Brooks — who represents all of Crawford and Mercer counties and parts of Erie and Warren counties — led a state Senate contingent that included state Sens. David G. Argall, Scott Hutchinson and Mike Regan. Republican state Rep. Parke Wentling, whose district includes parts of both Crawford and Mercer counties, was also in attendance.

“We wanted to give flexibility with how the money is used because you know best,” Brooks said, referring to the people gathered around her.

Among the first concerns shared was the topic of arming teachers, which drew a mix of responses.

Despite being a gun owner and self-proclaimed supporter of the Second Amendment, Superintendent Jarrin Sperry of Conneaut School District spoke against arming teachers. Even trained law enforcement officers can hesitate when faced with using firearms, Sperry said, and expecting armed teachers to make the same decisions as police officers could cause more harm than good.

“I think you’re looking at a horrible accident waiting to happen,” Sperry said.

Hermitage police Chief Eric Jewell said one of his concerns toward arming teachers was the training involved because regular police officers require constant training to maintain their firearm skills. To allow teachers to focus on teaching without taking on the added physical, tactical and psychological issues of handling firearms, Jewell suggested instead focusing on school resource officers, or SROs.

“The toolbox used by the schools is a very different toolbox than ours,” said Jewell, who has three children in Hermitage schools. “We could put funding toward bettering our SROs or better training.”

Much of the discussion focused on preventing school violence rather than dealing with incidents when they happen.

While having to teach kids toward standardized testing could be a cause of frustration for students, Superintendent Raymond Omer of the West Middlesex Area School District said it would be beneficial for schools to be able to get a feel for what was going on in the community.

Omer, who started with West Middlesex in July, said he previously worked in a rural school district with many students living in trailer parks. Seeing the students’ conditions at home and having to struggle to meet basic daily needs shed some light on how such circumstances can affect a student’s performance or actions at school, Omer said.

“We usually have the students for about seven hours a day if we’re lucky,” Omer said. “I think part of what we need to do is to figure out what’s going on throughout the 17 other hours of the day.”

In other cases, schools may be able to identify the students who may be struggling with mental issues or need some kind of assistance but not necessarily be able to help connect the students in question with the proper psychological help, said Amy Stewart, superintendent of Warren School District.

“If you’re looking at a parent who’s maybe struggling or there’s problems at home, you’re telling them to go three hours away to Pittsburgh,” Stewart said.

Another option in preventing school shootings could be getting kids themselves to come forward with potentially important information.

Having operated a police-in-school program for 10 years where he was able to meet and interact with students in his local school district, Warren police Chief Brandon Deppen said a major factor in encouraging kids to approach police or figures in authority involves being able to establish a positive relationship with the students early.

“If any of those kids see me outside of school, it doesn’t matter if I’m wearing my uniform or shorts and a T-shirt. They all say, ‘It’s officer Deppen,'” he said.

After the meeting ended, Brooks and the other senators said they would look into some of the concerns they were presented with at the meeting, with other roundtable discussions planned throughout the state.

“I think it was a good discussion, when the people handling legislation want to be able hear people’s concerns,” said Dan Bell, superintendent of the Hermitage School District.

David L. Dye writes for The (Sharon) Herald, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by CNHI.

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On – 08 Aug, 2018 By David L. Dye