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School safety group has 1st session about Policy 705 alternatives

The Tamaqua Area School District safety commission had its first meeting on Monday night at the Tamaqua Area Middle School, paving the way for a new policy on arming staff.

The commission members include first responders Tamaqua Police Chief Henry Woods, West Penn Police Chief Brian Johnson and Tamaqua Fire Chief Jim Connely.

Tamaqua school staff members on the commission are teachers John Matalavage and Jessica Mazaika Paisley, joined by nurse Cathy Miorelli.

Parents include Jackie Schaeffer and John Ross, while Nick Boyle, Tom Rottet and Larry Wittig of the school board safety committee round out the group.

“I think it’s going to work out well from an input perspective,” said Wittig, Tamaqua School Board president. “These guys are in the trenches, and certainly the rest of the people are stakeholders in this. They’re friends, but they have very different viewpoints on very important subjects. That’s going to enrich the conversation and we’re determined to make it a civil one. At the end of the day, there will be several recommendations coming out of here.”

The committee went over many of the district’s basic policies, and seemed to get its feet wet in preparation to dive deeper during the group’s next session.

“Everybody is worried about who’s going to be armed, how many will be armed, and who will pay for it,” Wittig said. “And that, I’m sure, will come next time and we’ll be discussing that in terms of a budget. But I think at the end of the day, it may get heated, and I think that we need experts in here. We know a lot, but not enough.”

Wittig hopes to bring in outside experts to make multiple presentations in front of the committee; experts on both sides of the ongoing armed-staff debate.

Indeed, a major goal of the committee to establish a new policy in regard to arming staff, after 705 was nixed over the summer.

The decision to scrap 705 came two weeks after Gov. Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 621, “which clarifies existing law to mandate explicit and more robust training requirements for armed school security personnel and further prevent the arming of untrained nonsecurity personnel, including teachers,” according to his office.

A second goal is to establish a thorough plan in case of a hypothetical active shooter situation, in terms of getting the right safety personnel to school in timely fashion, as well as keeping parents and guardians safe.

“I studied the school code in regard to 621,” said Wittig. “When 621 changed the school code, I went to the school code and I read every word of that section. It is not clear on this idea of not being able to arm the staff. But again, it’s up for debate and I’m sure that we will debate that.”

The safety committee will meet the second Monday of each month. The public may attend, but may not comment or ask questions. Each session is planned to be about an hour long.

“At some point we’re going to have to make some hard decisions relative to arming somebody,” Wittig said.