The community gets a voice regarding student safety in Unionville-Chadds Ford
● By J. Chambless
Community members met in small groups to discuss issues with Unionville-Chadds Ford administrators.
By John Chambless
The audience got some sobering news at a Nov. 11 “Community Conversation” held at Unionville High School.
Charles Gaza, the chief of staff for the Chester County District Attorney's Office, is also a district parent. He was invited to outline what safety procedures have been taken in the district since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, as well as the exploding local heroin crisis, and student cyber-bullying and sexting,
“I guarantee you that every school in the county has had every one of these problems,” Gaza said. “As parents, me included, we have to have those uncomfortable conversations with our children. The problem is at all of our doorsteps.”
In the wake of the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Gaza said, “we studied all of the vulnerabilities at our schools and made recommendations.”
He pointed out the reconfigured entrances at the district's schools, the sign-in process in which every visitor must wear an ID badge, and the unseen changes – such as the safety film put over all outside glass doors to prevent an intruder from shooting the door and walking in. During the presentation, a video was played that showed an armed intruder shooting a reinforced door. The glass shattered but stayed intact. The intruder fired several times and spent a minute and a half kicking the glass before finally gaining entrance.
District superintendent John Sanville told the audience that the safety film is in use throughout the district. “It provides a minute and a half for staff members and students to react, to get to safety,” he said. “Hopefully, we never live through an instance where that safety film will be used.”
Gaza spoke about how the District Attorney's Office has worked with all 57 police departments in the county to train them on what to do in a mass shooting incident. “That's about 800 officers, who have to have one platform of training so they know how to react if an incident occurs anywhere in the county,” he said.
The crisis situations are now called an “active threat,” Gaza said, since not all could involve guns. The “Mass Casualty Response Plan” includes any place where large numbers of people could be victims – movie theaters, offices, businesses or schools.
Gaza said that the chaos of reuniting hundreds of people after an incident, of securing the scene and processing each part of it could take up to 72 hours. “And it can take a month to begin to get answers,” he said.
An immediate concern to families nationwide is the heroin epidemic. “It is one of the greatest threats to our children,” Gaza said. Over-prescription of painkillers means many of the pills go unused, and are forgotten in medicine cabinets. Children and teens know where to find them, and since the pills are prescription medicine, they assume they are safe to experiment with. “There's a good chance you will be your child's first drug dealer,” Gaza said.
When the pills – which can cost $20 to $30 each on the street – run out, a young addict turns to heroin, which “costs about $6 a bag,” Gaza said. “Philadelphia has some of the cheapest, purest heroin in the world.”
Drug cartels based in Mexico are sending heroin north, accompanied by pure crystal meth, “and they do that to create a new demand through the Philadelphia hub,” Gaza said.
The third large issue facing schools and the community is internet communications. Because teens typically know more about technology than their parents do, it's easy for an illicit photo of an underage person to be sent from student to student, and for students to hide their activity online.
“I tell students that everything you put on the web or on your phone, you've lost control of it,” Gaza said. “As soon as you hit 'send,' it can be on every phone in your eighth grade homeroom. It ruins lives, and some don't recover from it.”
The Tredyffrin-Easttown School District is currently grappling with a similar cyber-bullying problem, Gaza said. “This can give students criminal records. If you have a naked picture of an underage person on your phone, that's child pornography. And if you share it, that's a felony.”
Gaza credited Unionville-Chadds Ford School District administrators and staff with being extraordinarily cooperative and open about incidents in the district.
Sanville agreed, saying, “If we do have a problem, we tackle it head-on.”
In the wake of recent incidents at Patton Middle School and Unionville High School, Sanville said, “I got over 100 emails. People in this community are passionate about safety, and rightfully so, but we don't always agree on what that means.”
He discussed an incident in the parking lot of Patton Middle School, during which a parent unwittingly left a loaded gun in an unlocked, running car, while the parent went briefly into the school. “What happened in that incident was that someone from the high school security team came over, saw a running car, opened the door and saw the gun,” Sanville said. “When that happens, we call police.”
The parent meant no harm and the issue was fully investigated, but Sanville said it brought up issues of what constitutes a threat on school grounds.
In a later incident in the high school parking lot, a routine inspection of the lot by a team with a dog that is trained to detect explosives and drugs indicated that a student's car was positive for gunpowder. The subsequent investigation revealed that the student had been hunting over the weekend, accounting for the trace element of gunpowder, but he admitted that he had a knife in the car.
“It was a hunting knife with a 3-inch blade, on the back seat,” Sanville said. “We have a memo of understanding with the surrounding police departments. There are things that we say we will do. We say that we will notify them when there is a weapon on school property. The criminal code says that a knife is a weapon.”
There is no “zero-tolerance” policy at the school, Sanville said. “In the end, we decided not to press charges. We didn't think charges were warranted. Ordinarily, having a weapon means expulsion. But the superintendent has grounds to consider the context.”
As an administrator, he said, “it's not an easy position to be in with a student who simply makes a mistake. But we do have to draw a line.”
In another incident, high school students were caught drinking alcohol on a school bus and were suspended, Sanville said. “They made a bad decision, and there were consequences. But if there is a silver lining here, it was that other students reported what happened to the administration. So things were handled in a timely manner.”
For the second half of the meeting, the audience broke up into smaller groups and met under the guidance of a district principal or administrator to focus on several questions:
How might we encourage students and parents to come forward to report possible issues?
At a neighbor's home, a student's parents are out of town. You notice students arriving for what appears to be a party. What do you do?
How do we keep our kids safe in the new cyber world?
What are the greatest safety issues confronting our students?
What should parents/students/UCFSD/community members do to improve student safety?
Where do you believe the district should focus in the next phase of improving student safety?
As the meeting drew to a close, community members tallied up which issues they felt most strongly about, and the administration will study the results and issue a report.
“That will give us ideas for the next steps,” Sanville said. He thanked the audience, saying, “We wanted to provide a forum for you to give us information and share your perspectives, and we thank you for coming.”
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.