Harrisburg safety forum: Superintendent rolls out ideas and mayor tackles failing schools
Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas Carter, center, at the Harrisburg School District’s first school/community meeting at Harrisburg High School Thursday night, Nov. 20, 2014. Mark Pynes | [email protected]
HARRISBURG- Harrisburg School District officials are planning to hire 10 additional security monitors and researching a “Safe Corridors” program where community watchers could help ensure students get to schools safely.
Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney also said during a parent and community safety forum Thursday night at Harrisburg High School that she would consider working with the city to restart a school resource officer program.
But she remained non-committal about placing armed police officers inside the district’s schools.
Knight-Burney was one of eight panelists who spoke at the school district sponsored forum Thursday night. The event drew about 100 people, nearly all adults. The crowd didn’t come close to filling the school auditorium, which disappointed the police chief and some audience members.
The bulk of the event focused on the panel discussion, where each panelist spent about 10 minutes providing their take on safety in the city.
Many speakers and audience members expressed concern about violent crime, including the sexual assault of a student walking to school last month. The city also logged its 15th homicide of the year this week.
Knight-Burney opened her remarks by saying this event was “not about finger-pointing. It’s about solutions.”
She said the district already has 27 security monitors, but she would like to bolster their ranks by adding 10 new monitors who would provide morning and afternoon coverage to all schools and the blocks surrounding them.
The “Safe Corridors” program, used in Philadelphia, could also provide students secure extended corridors to get to and from school. She said her staff was researching the program and noted that volunteer community watchers would need to pass background checks.
Knight-Burney said she was working with city officials to roll out a cell-phone notification service that would improve communication in the district, particular in emergency or security situations.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse advocated for the school resource officer program, which would place officers in school full-time to develop relationships with students and provide well-trained armed security for the buildings. The school district would pay for the cost in the short-term, under the mayor’s proposal.
Papenfuse also addressed the school district’s failing academic record head-on, acknowledging he might be delving into controversial territory.
“Failing to provide children a quality education is itself a violent act,” he said. “Moving children through a system, over a course of years, without giving them the skills to be proficient and succeed in life is a perpetuation of a cycle of violence.”
Papenfuse said providing children with knowledge, provides them with safety and security.
“We need to say it is not acceptable for parents to have no choice but to send their kids to a school that is failing,” he said.
He also supported expanding the number of students eligible for free school bus transportation
“There are too many kids walking too many long distances to school,” he said, drawing applause.
As it stands, the school district only receives money for, and provides buses for, students who live more than 1.8 miles from their school. Knight-Burney said it would cost $2 million to $3 million to provide busing for all students, unless the state law was changed.
Police Chief Tom Carter encouraged community members to fight against the prevalence of guns. He said a recent massive warrant sweep helped clean up the city, but that the shooting death of a man this week took the wind out of his sails.
“It is a tragedy,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes to go to a crime scene (Wednesday) where we had a young man killed…There are too many guns out there.”
Carter said he graduated from Harrisburg High School and he wanted to encourage other students who might not think they have much potential.
“All my life, I had people tell me I would not amount to anything,” he said. “Education will stop the violence. Education will save our kids. That’s a fight I want to fight.”
After the panelists spoke, the panel took questions from the audience. Most questions centered on finding a way to pay for more busing for all students.
Audience members also asked about requiring police officers to live in the city limits, expanding the Police Athletic League and poor communication from some schools about serious incidents.
One parent complained that he didn’t hear about a school lockdown in a timely manner nor was he notified after someone threw a rock at his daughters’ school bus, breaking a window.
Knight-Burney promised to look into the incidents at Ben Franklin Elementary.