Fearful Students in Pennsylvania
As school violence surges, the state and its school districts refuse to reconsider misguided disciplinary policies.
Students returning to public schools in Pennsylvania this year are being greeted by unarmed security officers, school police officers, and mental-health-care providers, as well as new security infrastructure, security drills, wellness rooms, and even nature trails. These changes resulted from a bipartisan focus by state lawmakers on securing schools and addressing a student mental-health crisis. In June, lawmakers sent local education authorities $200 million in grants from the state’s School Safety and Security Grants program, half of which will go to mental-health funding. Missing amid this financial largesse and public enthusiasm is any talk about improving school disciplinary policies. Given that violence in Pennsylvania public schools is possibly worse than it’s ever been, this omission is dangerous.
The state attorney general’s office runs a tip line for students to report potential acts of violence; it received more than 600 calls in its first week of operation in 2018. Now, according to its director Brittney Kline, the line receives 1,500 calls a week. While many of those calls involve mental-health issues, reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools confirm another major contributor: students are increasingly fearful of their violent peers.
The increase can be seen in the results reported across two school years: 2014–2015 and 2018–2019. On a range of offenses—knife possession, reports of terroristic threats, reports of possession of explosives, and reports of fighting—the 2018–2019 school year logged substantially more incidences, in some cases increasing more than 100 percent over 2014–2015. Moreover, the 2018–2019 school year saw 3,679 reported assaults on staff, up from about 2,000 in 2014–2015, and a striking 136 reports of rioting, up from just 11 in 2014–2015. (Data after 2019 is inconsistent due to Covid school shutdowns.)
According to testimony at a February House Democratic Policy Committee hearing, these data likely underrepresent the violence in Pennsylvania schools. Five of the state’s top 20 school districts, for example, reported fewer than five incidents of disorderly conduct last year—not a credible statistic. “Under-reported incidents of bullying and violence in our commonwealth’s schools show we have a lot of work to do,” Monroe County representative Maureen Madden said at the hearing.
Reports of incidents across the state indicate that the violence has not ebbed. In Pittsburgh last January, for instance, a student was shot in an Oliver Citywide Academy van, two staff members were hurt breaking up a brawl at Carrick High School, and another student had his head smashed into the ground multiple times at Brashear High School. Parents and school employees lambasted school-district officials at a meeting for letting repetitively violent students face only minimal consequences. “Tonight, I speak for the Brashear students who did the right things. They’re asking why nothing is being done, why the disruptive students are permitted to get away with ruining their education, why the disrupters are permitted to terrorize their hallways without recourse,” said Renee Maddex, a school police officer at Brashear High. “Students know they don’t have consequences for their actions, I’ve heard it with my own two ears,” one parent wrote to the Pittsburgh School District.
Pennsylvania state senator Scott Martin, who chairs the chamber’s education committee and previously ran a juvenile intervention center, says that many school-district officials and left-wing activist groups like the Education Law Center seek to avoid punishing dangerous students. “There’s certainly folks who advocate, even in serious circumstances, just slapping of the wrists for incidents in schools or the mindset that we should not have school resource officers or not allow students to be charged for incidents at school,” Martin said. “They believe students should not face any consequences for things that happen after school, and I find that very troubling.”
Martin pointed to how the membership of a state juvenile-justice task force initiated in 2019 was skewed toward the Philadelphia region, home to ideological allies of Democratic governor Tom Wolf. The task force’s 2021 report consequently made several recommendations that, according to Martin, alarmed legislative Republicans, including removing “all requirements for arrest and/or court referral” for students who commit crimes at school; changing the definition of a weapon to ensure that “schools are not required to report possession of weapons on school grounds, with the exception of firearms;” and prioritizing diversionary programs over the juvenile-justice system in all instances. “You can put all the physical infrastructure in place to protect our children from those on the outside who want to do harm,” Martin said. “However, just as important is what kind of culture you cultivate.”
Pennsylvania has spent more than $330 million on the School Safety and Security Grants program since its inception in 2018, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida—and that amount doesn’t include this year’s $200 million infusion. And Governor Wolf’s administration has allocated another $41.5 million in Safe Schools targeted grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Education since 2015, according to a department spokesperson. A primary goal of those grants is to help local education officials reduce “unnecessary student disciplinary actions,” the spokesperson said.
A culture that detests discipline invites chaos. As long as punishing habitually violent students is considered politically incorrect, Pennsylvania’s violent-crime tip lines and mental-health services will be overwhelmed no matter how much funding they get.
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