HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state senators who launched into a review Wednesday on what the state can do to improve school safety in the wake of December's elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., will have a complicated task on their hands.
Senators on the education and emergency-preparedness committees were told there is no one-size-fits-all solution for Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, and that administrators often have more pressing day-to-day safety concerns than preparing for the unlikely appearance of a heavily armed and deranged intruder bent on killing dozens of children.
Besides, districts disagree about whether it is wise to arm school security guards, and training school personnel to deal with armed intruders will be expensive and time consuming.
In any case, some things can't be stopped, even when security procedures are in place and teachers react effectively.
"Up in Newtown, they did everything right," said Education Secretary Ron Tomalis. "But there's evil in this world, and evil once in a while touches our children."
Joseph DeLucca, director of federal, state and nonpublic programs for the Luzerne Intermediate Unit, urged senators to pass a set of statewide standards that require every school building to post an armed guard, undergo more intensive safety audits and train staff on a crisis response plan that is as uniform as possible.
Asked by Sen. Tom Solobay, D-Washington, about the state's willingness to enforce such uniformity, Tomalis said any such requirements would have to strike a balance. He pointed out, for instance, that the state's two biggest school districts, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, have elected not to arm school security with firearms, while others have.
Tomalis also said many districts are more concerned about violence stemming from domestic incidents or gangs. Right now, the state, through its Safe Schools Office, disseminates information on the best practices in school safety to help schools meet a certain planning threshold while the auditor general's office reviews the plans' quality and implementation.
Ultimately, school safety is a local issue and is up to local leadership, Tomalis said.
In the meantime, a team of trained state troopers have assessed the physical security of 250 school buildings, and another 240 schools are on a waiting list, the state police commissioner, Frank Noonan, told senators.
After he testified, Noonan said he believes that an armed security guard who is a retired police officer would make a school safer. But he also said that such a decision, and the expense involved, must be left up to individual school districts.
He said he dislikes the idea of arming school personnel, such as superintendents or teachers, because it puts a deadly weapon on the hands of someone who has not had the months of firearms training that police officers have had.