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Pa. School Safety Task Force report emphasizes need for mental health resources in schools

September 19, 2018

The sixth and final meeting of the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force, led by Gov. Tom Wolf and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, was held Tuesday, June 12 at Woodland Hills High School in Churchill. Students, school administrators, law enforcement, health professionals and other members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania education community were invited to attend.

The Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force continued to emphasize in a report released Monday the need for more mental health support in schools.

“I am not convinced, at this point, that every school district is making mental health counselors available to every single student,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said during a press conference after the release of the report Monday. DePasquale, along with Gov. Tom Wolf, served as chairs of the task force. “That is something that’s critical and needs to get done very fast.”

DePasquale said students at each of the six regional listening sessions were informed the report called for more mental health professionals in schools. Some students said that they did not know who to turn to at their schools if they had questions or concerns related to mental health, he said.

Citing state Department of Education data from the 2016-17 school year, the report said the average student to school nurse ratio in Pennsylvania was 809 to 1. The National Association of School Nurses recommends a ratio of 750 to 1. For school counselors, the student to counselor ratio was 387 to 1, compared to a ratio of 250 to 1 recommended by the American School Counselor Association. The ratio of students to school psychologists came in at 1,164 to 1, compared to a ratio of 1,000 to 1 recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists, according to the report.

The report does not include guidelines for getting individuals into treatment. It does include recommendations for sharing information across local and state agencies to ensure that those in need are getting connected to the necessary resources quickly and efficiently.

Highlights from the report were released in June. The full report, which is available on the governor’s website, focuses on five areas: communication and information sharing, training, mental health services, emotional and social learning as well as strengthening building security. Included among the 31 recommendations are suggestions for integrating school resource officers and recommendations for establishing a list of approved vendors for school safety hardware.

The report is intended to offer suggestions and guidance to school districts and state agencies, DePasquale said. It does not offer estimates for how much recommendations would cost or put forth new requirements for schools.

“The main goal was to provide actionable advice for families, communities, schools and state agencies to help prevent school violence,” DePasquale said. “Many times, the tools and resources for implementing these recommendations are already available. They just need to be used. You’ll see that most of the recommendations are for state-level agencies to take the lead in providing the necessary resources for school districts to rely on.”

The task force formed about a month after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. with the intention of evaluating issues such as funding for school safety initiatives, access to physical and mental health support programs, effectiveness of state requirements for training and security, and quality of reporting or anonymous tip tools.

Charles Ramsey, chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency; Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators; Judy Morgitan, immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners; and Bonita Allen, president of the Pennsylvania Parent Teacher Association, served as vice-chairs.

The task force made six stops throughout the state between April and June, including a meeting at Woodland Hills Junior-Senior High School in Churchill.

Students invited to attend that session urged lawmakers to make sure students and parents -- especially those who have been personally impacted by gun violence -- have a seat at the table when decisions about school safety are being made.

Other stops included Erie, Mill Hall, Phoenixville, Plains and York. More than 800 online survey responses collected by the task force also helped to inform the report, according to Marcus Brown, Pennsylvania director of homeland security.

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