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Parents press for answers at North Penn school safety forum | #schoolsaftey


North Penn Superintendent Todd Bauer, at podium, outlines the objectives of a school safety forum at North Penn High School on Tuesday, May 14 2024. (Dan Sokil – MediaNews Group)

TOWAMENCIN — Parents continue to press North Penn School District officials to take steps to make schools more safe, while the district has named the third-party consultant they plan to have study an April attack that left a student hospitalized.

“I want to know my kids are safe, and they’re going to come home the way that I sent them there, and right now I don’t feel that,” said one parent.

Parents have taken the district to task for nearly a month now, after a student was seriously injured in an attack by another student at Pennbrook Middle School in Upper Gwynedd on April 17. The next night, students who witnessed the attack and parents concerned about safety grilled the board on what they saw as failures of the district’s security efforts, and asked for immediate steps to increase school safety.

In subsequent meetings, the district has vowed to take several steps to examine the incident, the district’s response, and any shortfalls or recommendations for further action, and parents have continued to ask how the district will ensure their students feel and are safe at schools.

That discussion continued on Tuesday night, in a roughly two-hour safety forum that featured district and Montgomery County officials, school board members, and two local police chiefs. Superintendent Todd Bauer and district Coordinator of Safe Schools Brandon Rhone started by detailing ongoing safety efforts, initiatives since a similar safety forum held in 2018, a 2022 school safety study, and what they see as next steps.

“Tonight, we’re here to discuss a very important topic, a very painful topic, and something that hopefully we as a community can work together to listen, to provide input, and to answer some questions,” said Bauer.

North Penn Coordinator of Safe Schools Brandon Rhone, at podium, speaks on district safety efforts since 2018 during a school safety forum at North Penn High School on Tuesday, May 14 2024. (Dan Sokil - MediaNews Group)
North Penn Coordinator of Safe Schools Brandon Rhone, at podium, speaks on district safety efforts since 2018 during a school safety forum at North Penn High School on Tuesday, May 14 2024. (Dan Sokil – MediaNews Group)

Safety measures

Additions over that time include two new school safety officers, one at Pennbrook and one at Pennfield Middle School, over 200 new video surveillance cameras across the district, upgrades to hardware including radios used by school and security staff during emergencies, and use of artificial intelligence to better filter and find things on the video.

Rhone also outlined the district’s “Here Comes the Bus” app parents can use to track their student as they ride to and from school, and “Bus Patrol” camera system meant to ticket dangerous drivers; public address and mass notification system upgrades to allow more communication, sensors that can detect vaping or smoking in restrooms, youth aid panels meant to adjudicate minor offenses outside of the criminal justice system, and the 2022 security study the board’s safe schools committee has discussed extensively.

“It gets down to things such as door locks, and foliage, and lighting, and cameras and door access, just to make sure with the number of facilities that we have, that we have somebody objectively being able to look at it, and tell us where we’re doing well, and where we need to make some areas of improvement,” Rhone said.

The security head also outlined the ongoing safety training all staff must complete annually, and the threat assessment criteria used by those staff when threats or tips are received, before Assistant Director of Special Education Neil Broxterman described the district’s Northbridge School and the programs offered there for students in need.

“Those students may be experiencing anxiety, depression, mental health challenges, that are preventing them from potentially returning to that larger school environment,” Broxterman said.

Last November, the district surveyed students about several security and counseling-related issues, including use of alcohol, marijuana and vaping bullying, use of prescription medications or stimulants, weapons use, and cases of bullying, and that data was fully received in late April and is currently being processed by administrators, he said.

“We’re looking at initial drug use, we’re looking at potential bullying, threats, potential weapons, lots of information and topics that are components of what we’re discussing tonight. The encouraging piece is, for the most part, as a district, we are consistently below the state average in most of those categories,” he said.

Not just hardware

Bauer then detailed the 2022 security study, their finding that the district “in many ways meets and/or exceeds contemporary standards” in security, and recommendations largely related to cameras, signage, and security hardware such as alarms, fences, and speakers.

“School safety is not just hardware, it’s not fortifying your facilities, it’s not security cameras and software. It is some of those things, but it’s also programming for kids, and the adults in the building supporting them, and identifying when a student is sad and pulling them out and speaking with them, and getting to the root cause, and helping the student,” Bauer said.

“There are areas in which we absolutely need to improve. But it’s important to understand that a school safety model is way more than just security guards, and just fortifying and hardening your facilities,” he said, before showing the district’s school safety data dashboards and where security stats are publicly reported.

Since the late April Safe Schools meeting, the superintendent added, the district has identified a firm to perform the third-party investigation into the April 17 attack, and that contract will be on the board’s May 16 action agenda, with costs covered by the district’s insurance carrier.

“It’s really to get an unbiased look at what happened here, and if there were mistakes, where were they?” Bauer said. “And remove me from the situation, so I’m not the one asking questions, because I also am asked questions, and try to get to the bottom of it.”

‘I’ll do what it takes’

Security and police personnel have been added at all schools, he said, and changes will be made to the Pennbrook cafeteria where the attack took place. Administrators including Rhone have begun listening sessions at elementary and middle schools to hear about their safety concerns, and reports on those findings will be presented at the next safe schools committee meeting on May 28.

“The strengths were: overall strong sense of safety in our schools, strong connection to our school counselor, caring teachers who listen to us, and drills and the presence of police provide a sense of safety,” he said.

“Some of the improvements were regarding behavioral struggles and inappropriate language of small groups of students, supervision and behavior in the cafeteria and at recess, inequitable treatment of certain students, and a perceived lack of follow-through when concerns are reported. That is for two of our 13 elementary schools, and there are going to be many more (visits) in the next four weeks,” Bauer said.

Over 180 parents have also replied to a call for help with setting up safety committees at each school, from those with varied backgrounds who answered a district questionnaire about whether they have any special skills or expertise: “My favorite response was ‘Nope, I’m just a mom and I’ll do what it takes,’” Bauer said.

Prior to the meeting, roughly two dozen parents and community members gathered outside the school entrance, swapping literature about the district’s security stats and safety concerns, and spreading the word about candidates opposed to the current board. Inside, roughly a hundred community members filled an auditorium designed to hold ten times more, and several school board members were among the crowd, as administrators took turns holding microphones for those asking questions.

Roughly two dozen parents and community members congregate outside North Penn High School ahead of a school safety forum on Tuesday, May 14 2024. (Dan Sokil - MediaNews Group)
Roughly two dozen parents and community members congregate outside North Penn High School ahead of a school safety forum on Tuesday, May 14 2024. (Dan Sokil – MediaNews Group)

The Q-and-A began with resident Bill Allen detailing threats he heard several years ago from a student about an incident off of school property, but during a school event, and complaints to counselors about the same student.

“It appears to me that there was no process in place for either feedback to students and parents, no process in place for moving it up the chain of command to a central location. I just saw about 20 acronyms up there of all of this stuff, and I didn’t see anything in there that says ‘We’re going to have a distinct process so some person or office gets all of the information about these things’,” Allen said.

Bauer answered that he heard “a fair criticism, that we are inconsistent in that way” regarding internal processes: “I do agree there needs to be an improvement in those lines of communication,” and said talks had been held as recently as earlier that day to discuss.

Regarding incidents outside of schools, “sometimes, there’s a breakdown in sharing information,” he said, and safe schools committee Chairman Jonathan Kassa said that committee and the new safety committees can be one of “multiple pathways to get information escalated or elevated, when people feel the information isn’t being listened to.”

Hatfield police Chief Bill Tierney said he and his fellow chiefs frequently communicate with administrators over the weekend about threats received ahead of when school opens, and has seen how those official communications might not keep up with online chatter.

“We’ll be texting between police chiefs, between (Bauer), between (Rhone), to try to get as much information together as we can. No excuses at all, but information, as quick as it comes in, it breaks down,” he said, and social media rumors can escalate situations before schools reopen or a threat or concern is addressed.

Another parent asked about how future incidents would be prevented, and how administrators determine what supports students receive. “We can’t turn back time, but moving forward, how could we further identify students that need higher levels of support?” Bauer said all staff are required to do training in trauma-informed instruction and certain emergency responses, and Chief Academic Officer Mike McKenna detailed the various tiers and levels of positive behavior intervention support training underway across the district.

An online question asked about staffing for special education teachers, and Bauer said recent additions have been “significant,” with roughly 30 new staff positions districtwide included in the preliminary 2024-25 district budget, including new speech and language pathologists, special education teachers, kindergarten assistants, paraprofessionals, and elementary counselors particularly at larger elementary schools.

‘What does it take?’

Parent Erin Blanc asked if students are fully held accountable for incidents: “They see certain students doing repeated misbehaviors, some removed from schools, coming back, removed again, coming back — what’s the end? What does it take to remove a student who is breaking rules, hurting kids, repeatedly? Why are we allowing these repeated behaviors?”

“That is one of the clear things that is going to be investigated, in this incident: how was the decision made, why was the decision made,” Bauer answered, and said without addressing the Pennbrook attack, “many of our students in our schools have behavioral problems, and they leave the North Penn School District and get supports elsewhere, and they transition back, and they’re very successful. In other cases, they transition back, and it’s a gradual transition, and it’s successful for a while, and we revert back” to requiring outside support again.

“I recognize that process is not perfect. I recognize that sometimes decisions are made where, in the end it was the wrong decision. And perhaps that was the case here. But I also recognize we’re talking about students age 5 to 18, and it’s about trying to work with them and their families, and support them, and bring them to a place where they can function effectively in our schools. And that’s not always the case. And I think, as a result of this and other incidents, that threshold needs to be really looked at,” Bauer said.

Resident Carl Smith said he thought the district’s curriculum had been politicized, and asked if the school board members “are accepting any culpability or responsibility for this incident, that took place as a result of your policies.” Bauer said any new curriculum material is going through a “very thorough” public review before adoption, and Kassa said the board’s education, curriculum and instruction committee holds talks on those items monthly.

“I don’t think it comes down to politics when we’re talking about curriculum, and a causality when it comes down to a violent nature in a school,” Kassa said.

AI eyes on students

An online question asked how the district detects smoking or vaping in bathrooms, and Rhone said newly installed sensor systems can detect those cases in every restroom in secondary schools, and “we started to definitely see a decline” in such cases after the systems went live; Bauer added that those sensors can be coordinated with cameras to detect correlations.

“It will say ‘Vape sensor alert, E-pod bathroom, second floor.’ And the security staff or administration will report. Sometimes that’s not in time, and the student moves on, but the software itself will associate the alert with the camera outside the restroom, and identify patterns: ‘There’s a vapor alert three times today, and this student in the blue sweatshirt came out every time,’” Bauer said.

Montgomery County School Safety Coordinator Beth Sanborn added that her office helps coordinate outreach and education efforts beyond schools across the county, since students may bring those vapes in from somewhere. “It’s not just on the school’s responsibility, it’s all of us at home. It’s teaching our kids to be that person that stands up, and is willing to share this information,” or where to voice their concerns.

Parent Stephanie Palovcak asked for specifics about the Pennbrook attack, including what precautionary measures were taken at that school before the alleged assailant arrived, what staff were informed about their prior incidents, and if the student was in general education classrooms. Rhone said he couldn’t address the Pennbrook incident directly, but more broadly said that behavioral threat assessments are typically available to school administrators, guidance counselors, school psychologists and climate coordinators, with strict controls.

“It’s not that anybody can go in, and grab information, and be able to gossip about the information in there,” Rhone said.

Bauer added that flow of information will be another area of study by the outside investigator.

“There are so many different systems, that I’m not sure the flow of information from one to the next is as efficient as it should be,” he said.

What does it take?

Another parent said she’s heard reports from her students of violence against other students in elementary classrooms, and classes moved out of classrooms due to chairs thrown, a chase with scissors, an altercation on a playground, and other “repeated behaviors by a specific student,” and police responses to situations caused by that student.

“Come on. We know which students are the problem. I’ve spoken to the principal, she says we’re following our policy as it’s laid out. Well, let’s change the policy. When you know there’s one student with repeated incidents, and you’re sending your kids into that classroom with them, or recess, what does it take?”

“When we were discussing the mask mandates, it was going to be completely acceptable that students who were unable, or unwilling, to wear a mask would be considered a threat, and they would be relegated to virtual learning. Why are we not doing this for actual physical threats in the school?” she said.

“Anything that I say to you is going to sound like an excuse,” Bauer said.

He added that outside placements can be limited by the capacity in those schools, but more can be done to create options between keeping a student in classrooms at risk to others, and sending them elsewhere: “Clearly, we have fallen short of that recently, and we need to address it.”

“We need to create a solution if the solution doesn’t exist,” which could be in-school suspensions, virtual schoolings, or a combination. “I can’t give you an answer right now, but you’re right, I hear you, I agree with what you said, and we need to work on those solutions,” Bauer said.

Another asked if “We have to wait for something to happen, before we actually do something,” and asked for specific numbers about how many students are “roaming the hallways with our kids” after prior incidents or attacks. Bauer answered that “I’m not going to describe which students I consider to be a threat. I’m not going to identify the number of students,” and said the board would work with staff on systems to better meet those students needs.

As for security training, Rhone said, all staff must undergo weather, fire, and evacuation drills each year, and Towamencin police Chief Tim Troxel said his department works with the district on those drills often.

“It’s kind of a crawl-walk-run stage: you have to teach them about the process, but then eventually you have to start doing it, because that’s where you work out the last kinks. Drills do play an important role. We have to do that in the law enforcement world, you have to do that in a school environment, and the kids do it from elementary school on,” he said.

Resident Jason Lanier asked about the firm being used, how the public would know they’re independent, and the district’s student discipline policies: “How come the kids that keeps doing the wrong thing, gets back in the classroom? It’s because, for whatever reason, they cannot be disciplined. What does the race of a person, their identity, have to do with their discipline? It doesn’t matter what you look like, how you identify, wat you’re thinking about, if you did the wrong thing,” he said.

Bauer said the outside firm up for board approval will be Stock and Leeder, one of three brought forward for interviews with the board prior to their expected vote on May 16, then addressed the policy question.

“You ask, how could a student’s race or ethnicity determine the discipline outcome? It does not. That has not come into play when assigning a consequence for a student,” Bauer said.

One last online question, about cellphone use by students: Bauer said that’s “absolutely a challenge,” and some middle school rules and regulations differ from others, while elsewhere in the county students have been found to have burner phones and turn in one to staff while still having another.

“We need to hold a firm line, because it absolutely impacts student behavior, in particular at the middle school level,” he said.

North Penn’s school board next meets at 7 p.m. on May 16 at the district Educational Services Center, 401 E. Hancock St. in Lansdale, and the safe schools committee next meets at 5:45 p.m. on May 28 online. For more information visit www.NPenn.org.



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