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Pushback to armed teacher idea in Tamaqua

Published October 17. 2018 11:53AM

Four dozen teachers and parents attended the Tamaqua Area School board’s public meeting Tuesday evening eager to make their voices heard on the board’s plan to secure buildings and protect students through the use of armed staff.

The policy, which had been prepared over the past several months, calls for volunteers from the ranks of teachers, support staff and administrators to carry firearms and provide for deterrent and elimination of any school-shooting threat. The board voted to approve the policy Tuesday night.

Several audience members spoke either in opposition to the policy or to question the board’s process in developing the policy. Board member Nicholas Boyle, who chairs the recently formed security committee, and board President Larry Wittig addressed concerns from the vociferous audience.

Former district resident Cheryl Tennant-Humes, whose grandson will be attending Tamaqua area schools in the future, drove from New Jersey to attend the meeting.

Tennant-Humes questioned the board’s decision and pointed to a report from Pennsylvania that she suggested doesn’t support arming teachers and staff.

“I wanted to know if the district based their decision on facts and if they’re taking a holistic approach to this,” she said.

Most parents said they felt blindsided by the policy and only heard of it late last week as a result of seeing it in a Times News article.

“I could find minutes from a parent-teacher group meeting but I can’t find minutes from a school board meeting. How can I be a responsible parent if I can’t see the minutes from a school board meeting?” said Arlen Green.

Green said he believes the policy puts children’s lives at risk. “I have a daughter that will start kindergarten next year. I don’t know if I want to send her here now.”

Megan McGeehan, a parent of two children in the district, said no other district in the state has allowed an armed staff in its schools. She accused the board of moving too quickly. “You want to be the first in the state to do this and put our kids at risk,” McGeehan said.

Boyle countered by saying that the board began discussing the issue and solutions in February.

“A couple months ago, I posted on Facebook asking for ideas because I wanted everyone’s input,” Boyle said.

Boyle said members of the public do not attend the board meetings when these items are being discussed.

Kim Woodward, a teacher in the district, voiced concern about technology and mental health. “We should get rid of all this technology and we should hire more psychologists. Sixty-five percent of teens feel depressed. What are we doing about that?”

The district’s secondary school nurse, Cathy Miorelli, agreed.

“I hear a lot of talk that’s reactionary. I don’t hear anything about prevention. We need more social workers in the schools to work with these kids,” she said.

In response to a question regarding Pennsylvania having no law permitting the carrying of firearms on school property, district solicitor Jeff Bowe said, “There is no statute that allows the district to implement this policy and there is no statute that prevents them from doing so.”

Tamaqua teachers union president Frank Wenzel first asked Superintendent Ray Kinder if he supports the board’s plan.

Kinder responded by restating that his preference was to hire a security firm.

“But that doesn’t matter,” he said. “This is a board decision.”

Wenzel then directed the same question to Bowe.

“Is it your recommendation that the board move forward with such a policy?”

Bowe responded, “Like most lawyers, I am more comfortable with statutes that authorize things.”

Wenzel then turned to the audience and said, “What we’re seeing here is that we got the leader of the school district and the solicitor, the guy that’s in charge of keeping them out of trouble, saying ‘I wouldn’t do this.’ But we got board members and they’re all for it. That should tell you something.”

Not everyone in attendance was opposed to the policy, though.

The last to speak, Sarah Allesch of Tamaqua said, “I’ve listened to all of these people and all I want to say is that I commend the board. I think you’re working to keep our kids safe.”

Near the meeting’s end, which came at 10 p.m., Kinder concluded his thoughts by saying, “Standing still and doing nothing is not an option. It’s a different world. We’ve done our homework on this. This policy gives us a lot of flexibility.”

He then addressed the tone of the meeting and the process.

“Everyone wants to create a villain. ‘You disagree with me so you’re bad.’ Let’s not lose focus. I’ve spoken to everyone on the board throughout this and everyone wants to do the best and safest thing,” Kinder said. “There are no villains here. We’re all trying to do the safest thing for the kids.”

Board member Mark Roth was absent from the meeting.

The board’s next work session is scheduled for Nov 13.

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