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Tamaqua parents, weapon training group present options

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    Frank Wenzel, teachers’ union president, stands among a group of teachers and parents anxiously awaiting the start of the special meeting to discuss arming school staff. Scan this photo with the Prindeo app for a video from the meeting. PAUL CWALINA/TIMES NEWS

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    Jennifer Paisley addresses the crowd at the Tamaqua Area school district’s special meeting to discuss Policy 705, which allows staff to be armed.

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    Joe Eaton, representing the Ohio-based organization Buckeye Firearms Association, describe the group’s FASTER training and its advantages.

Published November 08. 2018 12:27PM

Both sides of the contentious debate over arming staff in Tamaqua Area schools had their say during a marathon special meeting Wednesday night. More than 150 parents, teachers and other district residents jammed the middle school cafeteria to hear presentations for and against the recently adopted district policy allowing armed staff. The meeting lasted just under four hours.

After brief remarks regarding the format for the meeting, board President Larry Wittig turned the podium over to former district resident Cheryl Tennant-Humes, an attorney who has a grandson who will be attending Tamaqua area schools in the future.

Suggesting that the board moved too quickly and without transparency, she said, “The board dropped this atomic bomb of a policy on the district with little to no transparency, no explanation of the process, no input from the public and has given no reason we should follow them into uncharted legal territory.”

She added, “Our teachers, teachers’ union and the PSEA do not support this policy.”

Tennant-Humes said, “We have not found one study, not one expert that recommends arming teachers and staff. In fact, we found the contrary,” she said.

Tennant-Humes concluded her remarks with a firm demand. “We continue to ask for nothing short of a rescission of the policy.”

She turned over the presentation to the group of parents who have opposed this policy since learning of it in October.

Karen Tharpe, member of the Tamaqua Citizens for Safe Schools, was the first of five parents to present their side, with a 22-page slideshow, detailing alternatives to arming staff and a host of reasons to oppose such a move.

Tharpe began by noting that “law enforcement from the FBI down to local police do not support this policy.”

Megan McGeehan spoke about what other school districts were doing. “One of two paths — employ police officers part time. Better option their own school police force.”

Preventive measures

Jennifer Paisley addressed the crowd to highlight preventive measures that are available and being used by school districts across the country. “We need to create a system to identify and address at-risk students.”

Lisa Behr presented a number of technology-related options for school security that could help staff send silent alerts districtwide and help police identify and track a shooter.

The parents proposed improved screening of people entering the buildings, random use of metal detectors including at events or for all nonstudents entering the building during the day, barriers put in place where a vehicle could be driven through the doors, and changing the entrance layouts so anyone entering during the day has access only to the office.

Measures they proposed include increased staffing in mental health areas and mentoring programs for students.

Based on a Task force for How to Prevent Targeted School Violence report, parents said the district should have four nurses, eight guidance counselors, three to four psychologists, and five social workers.

Other options are in-service training not just for student mental health but for teacher mental health and burnout as well, active shooter training and drills for all staff and students and a shooter detection system mounted in the ceiling to call 911 if shots are fired.

“Combine any of these options with a resource officer and you greatly reduce the risk,” Behr said.

When their presentation concluded, Wittig thanked the group for its hard work and conceded that there were some ideas he wished to pursue or investigate further.

“This policy is flexible. It will allow us to do many of things that are being suggested,” board member Nicholas Boyle said.

A group of Tamaqua Area High School students also spoke in opposition to the policy. Sophomore Madeline Jones noted that they were “speaking for the students who are afraid to speak up.”

School nurse Cathy Miorelli also read an anonymous letter from a student in opposition to the policy.

Training teachers

Joe Eaton, representing Ohio-based Buckeye Firearms Association, spoke on behalf of the organization and its FASTER training.

The FASTER training is designed to provide an immediate response to a school shooting before police can respond to the situation.

“Time is what matters in these situations.”

Referencing the concept of “the stopwatch of death,” Eaton said that in every minute that passes before a shooter is stopped, five to seven people will be killed.

Eaton challenged the audience to put themselves in a shooting situation and told them to look at the people seated with them at a table and the table next to them. He then told them that in a minute’s time, at least five of those people will be dead.

He also spoke of the delay in calling 911.

“In these situations, self-preservation is primary, not dialing 911.” He pointed to the report of one teacher at Sandy Hook elementary school, who was hiding under her desk during the shooting, being afraid to call 911 for fear of the shooter finding her.

Continuing to reference Sandy Hook, he said the school had a host of safety procedures and the shooting still took place.

Eaton agreed with all of the ideas that the parents group presented, even noting, “If your board isn’t doing those things, approaching this layer-by-layer, then I will be on the other side with the parents.”

Mark Zelinkas, a 28-year teacher from the Indiana, Pennsylvania, school district also spoke on behalf of the policy to arm school staff.

“I asked myself ‘What would I want if my child was out in that hall (during a shooting)?’ I cannot sit behind a locked door and do nothing.”

Following both presentations, Wittig opened the floor to questions from the audience.

About two dozen people lined up for the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.

Most questioned aspects of the policy and challenged the board to consider other alternatives, but there was some support for the policy, as well.

Tamaqua Area high school art teacher, Kim Woodward, noting her family’s experience in law enforcement, asked questions about ammunition and concluded by asking the board and Superintendent Ray Kinder, “Where are the school principals? If this is so important, our bosses should be here.”

The board will meet in a work session at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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