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In Pa., a flurry of school safety bills. Action? Not much yet

Pennsylvania lawmakers and the Wolf administration are considering a wide range of policies to prevent school shootings, but further restrictions on firearms don't appear to be on the agenda.

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Read morePaul Taggart

Creating a school-violence hotline. Pumping more money into prevention programs. Even arming teachers.

The national spate of school shootings — and the outcry by thousands of students in their wake — has spurred a flurry of school-safety legislation in Pennsylvania's Capitol. Over a half-dozen bills have been introduced in the last year alone.

It is unclear how many bills will ultimately be signed into law. The legislature is gearing up for budget talks this month and election battles this fall. It also seems unlikely that the Republican-controlled legislature would sanction stricter gun-control provisions.

"Remember, this is, in many respects, the most conservative legislature in modern Pennsylvania history," said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.

But on Wednesday, the state Senate approved a measure that would establish an anonymous reporting system for potential threats, modeled after the Safe2Tell hotline that was created after the Columbine High School massacre of 1999.

And the House could soon vote on a bill to require school districts to conduct security drills. In that measure, a one-word change from "may" to "shall" would make the drills mandatory. It passed a House committee unanimously this week.

There are also several bills that would boost funding for the state's Safe Schools Initiative, which allows districts to apply for grants for anti-violence programs, such as counseling services or conflict resolution.

A bill by Sen. Thomas J. McGarrigle (R., Delaware), for instance, would increase funding for the Safe Schools Initiative from $8.5 million to $50 million; another measure, pushed by Rep. William C. Kortz (D., Allegheny), proposes increasing the personal income tax from 3.07 percent to 3.077 percent, to raise about $30 million for safe schools.

But the measure that has received perhaps the most attention is one sponsored by Sen. Don White, a Republican from Indiana County. His bill would allow school districts to decide whether school employees who receive training should be permitted to carry guns on school property. It has drawn both fierce support and rabid opposition.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, opposes arming school workers. The governor has formed a safe schools task force of administrators, teachers, students, mental-health professionals, and first responders to make recommendations.

The Washington Post, which has tracked school shootings dating to the mass shooting at Columbine, reported that at least 141 children, educators, and other people have been killed and 287 have been injured in school shootings or assaults.

In all, more than 215,000 people have been exposed to gun violence at the 217 schools that were targets of school shootings since Columbine. That includes five girls who were killed and five others wounded when a man opened fire at an Amish school house in Lancaster County in 2006.

February's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., reignited national debate over gun control and inspired a student-led #NeverAgain movement to end school shootings. Legislators across the country have taken notice.

In Pennsylvania last week, with educators and law enforcement at their side and elementary-school children walking the marble floors for a tour, Sen. Mike Regan (R., Cumberland) and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Hazleton, held a news conference on the state and federal efforts on the matter.

With a graphic displaying how much money Congress spends to protect itself, Barletta, who is running for the U.S. Senate, called on Congress to act immediately to protect children and teachers.

Congress spends $426.5 million on its own protection, a $33.2 million increase from fiscal year 2017, according to the graphic. Barletta asked for support for his Protecting Our Kids Act, which would require the Departments of Education and Homeland Security to create guidelines for school security.

Regan said he favored a measure, now in a state Senate committee, that would allow government agencies to have "closed-door sessions" on matters of security and emergency preparedness.

However, school safety advocates and others say improving school safety extends beyond funding bills.

"Gun violence is obviously one component of it," said Sarah Galbally, Wolf's policy secretary. "I think there are other aspects that lead to gun violence, like lack of mental health-care coverage in communities and accessibility to that mental health-care coverage."

Galbally said that through Wolf's task force, the administration continues to hear about the need for mental health support.

"A lot of communities feel as though these services are not connected to schools, and they are hard to find and to navigate," she said. "Where can we, as a state — either through funding for mental-health care or through creating better connections through school districts and health-care communities — bridge that divide?"

Andrew Barnes, a deputy policy secretary in the Wolf administration, noted the challenge of creating community involvement before a crisis occurs. To overcome this, he said, he envisions community counselors and activists willing and able to recognize a call for help.

And though Pennsylvania is a strong gun-rights state, Galbally said there is a need to deeply examine laws to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn't have them while protecting individual rights.

After last week's news conference in the Capitol, Fred S. Withum, the superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District near Harrisburg, suggested a multi-prong approach with mental health services for students and adults, tightened security, and educational programs as well as removing guns from those who shouldn't have them and doing so quickly.

"I would echo the words of the kids that we're hearing across the country," Withum said. "We're not exactly sure what the answer is, but you have to do something. These are some of the issues that people are divided over; we have to find the middle ground, and we have to take action."

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