DA Freed Testimony on School Safety APRIL 2013

April 18, 2013

Chairman Day, Vice-Chair Parker and members of the House Select Committee on School Safety, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you on behalf of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. My name is David Freed, and I am the District Attorney of Cumberland County and Vice President of PDAA. More important, I am the proud parent of a Fifth Grader, a Third Grader and a First Grader. This Select Committee has important work to do, and I have no doubt we will see some excellent recommendations and results.

The massacre at Sandy Hook spurred a renewed dialogue on school safety. It was a stark reminder that tragedy does not stop at schoolhouse doors and does not spare innocent lives. The murder of innocent children is among the saddest crimes that anyone can imagine. I have personally tried two murder cases involving the killing of children. During my career my office has prosecuted thousands of criminals and worked with a significant number of victims. But it is the cases involving children that are the most gripping, and I know that sentiment is shared by my fellow District Attorneys. We owe it to the children and to their loved ones to do everything we can to make schools safer.

I am here today to offer several broad recommendations on behalf of PDAA but also to pledge our assistance with your task.

FIRST, we must

Ensure Flexibility on the Local Level

As a general matter, there is no single reform or piece of legislation that will magically ensure the safety of our schools. Rather, this problem requires a comprehensive approach. This is of particular importance in a state as large and diverse ours. Different schools have different needs. Indeed in Cumberland County, I would not necessarily want to prescribe all of the same recommendations to schools in Camp Hill that I would in Shippensburg. Therefore, all recommendations must have sufficient flexibility to allow local officials to tailor them to address their specific needs.

NEXT, we must

Improve Mental Health System

More specifically, we must do a better job of diagnosing and treating individuals with mental illness. One way is to recognize that schools are on the front line of identifying mental health problems. The warning signs of mental health problems most often emerge during childhood, and the earlier these problems are detected, the earlier they can be treated-thus potentially stopping violent behavior before it begins. But early intervention requires that educators be trained to spot the warning signs of mental illness and it requires that sufficient numbers of trained mental health professionals staff our schools. Adequate staffing of mental health professionals ensures that students receive the services they need and it allows for collaboration between the school and the students’ homes.

I also strongly believe we must also improve our involuntary commitment statute. There are individuals who should be eligible for involuntary commitment who do not meet the existing standard. The existing standard does not allow for consideration of certain relevant factors, such as prior history of violence or harm, treatment history, and whether the individual is currently complying with treatment plans. Senators Vance and Greenleaf and Representative Scavello, among others, have proposed changes to our involuntary commitment law, and I believe now is the time to make changes to that law. Indeed, my colleagues in the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association strongly believe such a change is necessary.

Next, we need to continue to

Punish Those Who Illegally Possess Firearms

There is more we can do. We must support efforts to ensure that guns do not end up in the hands of people who should not have them. Many of us have different opinions on various aspects of gun laws, but one area that should not be controversial is ensuring significant penalties for those that possess illegal guns. Our prisons are made for people who commit violent crimes, and I believe a felon in possession of a firearm is committing a violent crime. The stakes are too high, and the consequences too severe, to treat these violations lightly.

We need to

Secure School Facilities

Next, to ensure a safe and secure learning environment for all, we must ensure adequate structural and technological support to help protect students and educators. This includes improvements to school facilities. Schools must be made safer. Points of entry must be secured and security equipment should be enhanced, so an unauthorized person cannot easily gain access.

Add School Resource Officers

We should also promote funding for School Resources Officers. These armed officers are trained in high-stress, rapid-response situations, and they more specialized than local police officers who have been assigned to patrol the school. School Resources Officers are integrated members of the school staff who receive additional training in counseling and working in a school setting. I am well aware that funding is scarce, but I hope we can identify some state funding to hire and retain SROs. I can tell you that we have already seen the benefit of this program in Cumberland County. We unfortunately have had several cases involving threats to students and teachers and the intelligence information provided by the on scene school resource officers has been invaluable in stopping these cases before they start.

We need to

Ensure Adequate Training

But aside from improving school facilities and staff, we must also ensure that the students and staff are trained in issues of conflict management and resolution, school safety, and bullying prevention. We know that bullying is often the source of isolation and despair among students, and on more than one occasion, has been the antecedent to violent behavior.

Next, we need to

Develop School Safety Plans

As law enforcement officials, we encourage and invite schools to partner with their local law enforcement in developing safety plans. We should ensure ongoing dialogue between local law enforcement and schools. To effectively combat the problem of school violence, law enforcement must be aware of the challenges and issues that teachers face and schools must be instructed about how to respond if facing an imminent crisis.

Another important recommendation is to

Assemble Threat Assessment Teams

I would also encourage the state to assemble a Threat Assessment Team, composed of law enforcement, safety experts, and educators who are responsible for visiting every school in the state and providing specific analyses of what schools can do to be safer. The Threat Assessment Team could collaborate with individual schools and local law enforcement to create crisis prevention and response teams. In this way, the Team could help to prevent tragedies by looking at these schools with a fresh and experienced perspective and ensure that schools are ready to respond quickly and efficiently in the event of an emergency.

Invest in Education

Finally, and perhaps most important, we must invest in education. I am a Board member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which is a national non-profit and bipartisan organization aimed at preventing crime and violence through investments in early childhood education. They advocate what research has proven-namely, that the best way we can improve public safety is by providing vulnerable children with the right start in life and provide access and services to kids who start to veer off track.

I encourage you to consider their proposals as you shape a plan to make Pennsylvania’s schools safer. They include the following:

  • Wherever possible, we must provide easier access to high-quality early care and learning programs, especially for the most at-risk children. Research has shown that quality early care and education has a direct correlation with positive academic and behavioral outcomes in children.
  • We must provide additional resources to families in poverty, because the more resources we provide for these children, the less likely they are to suffer from behavioral issues that lead to delinquency.
  • And we must protect funding streams that support access to therapeutic prevention and intervention programs for troubled youth. We know that once a child strays from the path, it is crucial that they get back on track in the shortest amount of time possible.

Thank you again for this opportunity to share input in this important discussion. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.