Upper Darby School District / Upper Darby Parent Coalition
Meeting minutes from “A Conversation about School Safety” event on Monday, November 18, 2013
People began arriving for the meeting around 6:30 p.m. As people checked in, they were asked to write their safety questions and concerns on index cards. These cards were compiled on posters around the room. The meeting began at 7:00 p.m. in the Upper Darby School Board Room. Attendees were seated in an oval, with District Administrators interspersed between the audience members.
UDPC member Laurie Patterson introduced UDSD Superintendent, Dr. Richard Dunlap.
Dr. Dunlap spoke about how parents, teachers, and administrators all have the same goal and care about our schools. His goal for this meeting was to provide as much information as possible, and to encourage as much transparency in the process as possible.
UDPC members Bill Kaplan and Kate Smith facilitated the meeting.
The following are summaries of questions and comments raised by the community, grouped by topic. This document is not intended to be a formal transcript of the meeting proceedings. Answers were provided by:
- Dr. Richard Dunlap, UDSD Superintendent of Schools
- Mr. Daniel McGarry, UDSD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction
- Mr. Louis Gentile, UDSD Director of Public Safety and Attendance
- Ms. Dana Spino, UDSD Director of Media Services
- Mr. Tom Micozzie, Mayor of Upper Darby
Question: I appreciate getting the global connect calls when things happen at school, so that I know before the kids come home and tell me the rumors. How does the district decide when the calls will go out?
Dr. Dunlap: With the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act, we are limited to what we can say, and we can’t violate those rights. So we can share information about incidents, but we can’t tell you specifics, like who was involved. Students have those rights, and whether something happened that violated our district code, or Pennsylvania Criminal Code, they’re innocent until proven guilty. There are also specific guidelines about hearings after fights. The student is given time to share their information, and the principal makes a determination about what happened.
Question: How are arrests communicated to parents?
Dr. Dunlap: As far as what we’re able to communicate, we can let parents know that we’re following the process. But we’re not allowed to share information about other students.
Mr. McGarry: Our policy specifically delineates a joint release of information—UD Police and UD School District.
Parent: If you want to improve the perception of our schools, we need Dr. Dunlap and the principals to be the face of the district, not Upper Darby Police Department Chief Chitwood.
Question: I am very concerned about the high school. I am concerned when I see “for sale” signs on my street, and when I ask my neighbors why they’re leaving, they say, “I can’t send my kids to the high school.” What is the district doing to battle the perception of the high school as unsafe?
Dr. Dunlap: UDHS is a phenomenal school. There are incredible opportunities here. We are in the process of developing a policy for social media. When that policy is passed, we’ll be able to push more information out to parents and the community through Facebook and Twitter. For every one thing the community hears about that’s bad, there are 10 or 20 things that happen that are outstanding. We need the help of our reporters, our editors, to be able to promote all the great things that are going on. Are the stories that sell papers the negative ones? The press releases that we send out don’t always make the paper. Social media will help us get a better message out.
Parent: Do your due diligence. Come up here to the high school to look around. The people who don’t send their kids to UDHS haven’t given it a try. Don’t buy into the hype. The people who have the negative things to say are just buying into the hype. We have to try really hard as a community to be involved parents and to stay the course.
Question: Is there any way to put a group of parents together to promote a positive message? For parents to contact the schools and get it out there when they hear all the wonderful things.
Dr. Dunlap: We are going to have a district Facebook page, where we’re able to push information out. Parents will be able to share information that way, and through Home and School Facebook pages as well. Right now, we’re planning to have a two-way Facebook page, where people can leave comments. Inappropriate comments will be deleted, but we want it to be conversation, a dialogue. Twitter will also be a part of this, a way to get information out. Things like tonight, the UDPC puts things on their website.
We are all in this together, we need to come to the table, roll up our sleeves, have a transparent conversation, and see what we can all do to fix things together.
Ms. Spino: We know that social media will make it easier to engage. We are also transitioning the PIP Committee to become more of a district-wide home and school committee. This will help us communicate better with the Home & School Committees, so that everyone is getting the message. We’re working with public relations (PR) committees in each building, which are made up of the principals and teachers, to get a newsletter together. If you look at your school’s website, quite a few of them have newsletters already. I’ll be pulling from those newsletters to put together a district-wide newsletter to give a larger picture. We expect all of the newsletters to be up and running by January.
Parent: Don’t forget to also reach out to the police chiefs and mayors of Millbourne and Clifton Heights. We pay taxes, we want to feel a part of it and have a say too.
Parent: What is the policy on cyberbullying?
Dr. Dunlap: Parents can communicate with the Upper Darby Police Department about cyberbullying, and the police will get involved. If a threat is made, it doesn’t matter whether it’s online or on paper or verbal, we have to take it seriously.
Mr. McGarry: There is a clearly defined bullying policy that is reviewed with teachers four times a year. If someone is being harassed outside of school, we really can’t get involved with that. However, if it gets into school in terms of disrupting the learning process, we can get involved. If it makes its way into school, we can get involved in outside bullying. Cyberbullying is a new area of education law.
Facilities / School Environment
Parent: What are we doing long-term about space issues and capacity, particularly with the high school? Are we considering a second high school, or a center for grades 9 and 10?
Dr. Dunlap: A capacity task force study and a demographic study were done. I’ve gotten both reports. There were a number of district personnel involved in that study. I’ll be asking three parents to become part of that committee, to help analyze the reports and report the information out to the community.
There are pros and cons to all the possible solutions, and it will take time for this community to analyze the information and make a decision on where we want to go with that. But yes, we will be having a dialogue about that.
Question for Mayor Micozzie: Are the video cameras working on Lansdowne Avenue?
Mayor Micozzie: There are cameras on Lansdowne Avenue from State Road clear to Garrett. We have live, real-time cameras. We owe Bonner some trees.
Dr. Dunlap: With old buildings, I know that’s going to happen. We’re bringing people in to handle this, and I’ll look into it further.
Question: Are cameras used to verify students’ accounts of incidents?
Dr. Dunlap: Yes.
Question: Can you speak about the possibility of metal detectors?
Dr. Dunlap: That came up at a board meeting, and that’s part of why we’re here tonight. We want to be safe, but we need to talk about the pros and cons. What is that like for kids to go through that process?
Parent: I’m not interested in metal detectors, because of the mind state it would put students in. They’re going to school. We want to send them the message that school is a safe haven for them.
Parent: I think metal detectors would be the most complete waste of money. It’s not warranted.
Parent: Parents need to be more responsible with what kids are putting into their school bags. Whether it’s drugs or knives or whatever. Parents need to take responsibility and not expect the school district to do it for them.
Question: Has there been an assembly telling these kids not to bring guns to school? When I asked, our school said that was the parent’s responsibility. If the school can call and tell me to make sure my kids eat breakfast before the PSSA tests, then this can be a community responsibility. It needs to start in Kindergarten, that guns and weapons don’t belong in the school. We need to teach them from day one. People may have different ideas of how to get respect and how to ensure safety. All three of my kids said that has never been a conversation at school. Make it a teachable moment at school. Make it part of the social curriculum.
Question: What is the policy or strategy for a student who sees a weapon on school grounds? Some students want to be a hero, they want to pick it up and turn it in.
Dr. Dunlap: The first thing is a public service announcement that nobody should be picking up a weapon. You don’t know if it’s loaded, or how to handle it. You need to notify authorities right away. That’s being the hero. Getting the information to the right people, so that it can be dealt with.
Mr. McGarry: There are also universal health precautions to consider. Don’t touch a knife or a gun or any weapon, because you don’t know where it’s been or what’s on it.
Question: How can we make the school environment more positive?
Mr. McGarry: For me these are community issues as much as school issues. As educators, we want to work on math and reading, not expulsion hearings. To really combat some of these issues, we have to create a much more positive environment with these kids. Most kids are intolerant of how some of the kids act. It frustrates them–they’re embarrassed at how the school is portrayed, at how some students behave.
A lot of what we deal with every day is poor communication with each other. Kids are uncomfortable having conversations with each other. We need to teach these kids how to communicate with each other. Some of the kids are being taught to react, not to communicate. When you ask kids why they did what they did, they usually say they didn’t want to look like a fool in front of their friends. They want to “front”. We need to get our kids to stop that kind of peer pressure. We’ve got to make it so positive that it extinguishes the bad behavior.
We get about 400 kids a year between August and November that are new to the district. We’ve got to create process where we teach them that it’s okay to be a good kid here. In other places maybe it’s not, but here, it’s okay to be a good kid.
Question: Do you have an orientation for the parents and students that are new to the district?
Mr. McGarry: We have built an orientation process. But the key is getting people to be a part of the process.
Question: Can you require parents to participate in an orientation process?
Mr. McGarry: No, you can offer it. You cannot legally require a parent to participate in an orientation. You can’t deny someone entrance to a school because their parent can’t make it to orientation. We have a process in place for 8th graders going into 9th grade, we have an orientation in the summer. But we can’t be punitive if people can’t or won’t participate in the orientation process.
Question: Why not have a video orientation that can be viewed on the website, or at the administration area when they are enrolling/registering their student?
Mr. McGarry: We’re going to do that.
Question: What is being done to address safety in the stairways? At lunchtime, or in between classes, kids are getting shaken down for change in their pockets even. The kids are scared. It’s one kid against 10. If you don’t solve the stairways, you can’t solve anything. It’s not in the hallways or the bathrooms. It’s the stairs. Are there cameras in the stairways and hallways?
Mr. Gentile: The stairways have always been an issue for that type of behavior, and other behaviors that are not desirable. One stairwell has a camera on it. The bathrooms can also be an issue, and that’s why we took the doors off so students couldn’t hide. But students have rights. You can’t have this be a police state. We address specific student concerns on a case-by-case basis.
Teachers, Staff, and Training
Parent: What is being done to provide in-service training for the teachers on things like conflict resolution, and how to know when it’s appropriate to dive into a fight? What is being done to bolster the safety of our teachers in the district?
Dr. Dunlap: We have a responsibility for the safety of all our students. Sometimes, students have to be restrained. Teachers and administrators can’t look the other way when fights happen. There are usually verbal cues, and if students don’t respond, you have to get in there and separate it. Unfortunately, that’s a physical act. We do work with our faculties, not necessarily on how to physically break up a fight, but we do a lot of training with our faculty to help students build relationships. The training also includes how to keep other students from entering the fight, and identifying witnesses to the incident.
Question: Can you address how safety is handled on the buses? Who is responsible for bus safety, and are bus drivers trained on how to handle personal safety and bullying issues?
Dr. Dunlap: Currently, 34 of our buses have DVD cameras. 36 have VCR cameras, which don’t all work properly. 58 buses have no cameras. We’re working toward putting DVD cameras on all of our buses. We had issues where we wanted to see what happened, and the VCR camera didn’t record properly. [Note: Dr. Dunlap provided estimates at the meeting and then provided more specific numbers afterward, which are given here. There are 128 buses total in the district.]
Also, one of our pillars is professional development, and that needs to include everyone, not just teachers and administrators. We need to constantly be training and cross-training – and that needs to include bus drivers, secretaries, aides, and crossing guards. We actually just ran the bus drivers through some training, and I think that’s the first time that’s happened in a long time.
But, we need time. We need time to do this, and do it well. But yes, we need to train the bus drivers on how to handle situations better. That’s the direction we’re going, but we have a long way to go on that. But we’re getting started.
Question: What is the teacher’s role in addressing safety concerns?
Dr. Dunlap: Teachers talk to their building principals when they have concerns. There’s a lot of training that we’re doing to help teachers be able to de-escalate conflicts. That’s a big part of the Positive Behavior Initiative Support (PBIS) program.
Mr. McGarry: There are also anti-bullying committees that are run by teachers. They do a lot of conflict resolution. Our social workers and guidance counselors train our teachers. They also meet with students. The school psychologists are also part of that process when they’re not doing testing.
Question: How much of what the school social workers and guidance counselors do is proactive versus reactive?
Mr. McGarry: Up until recently, a lot of what the social workers did was reactive to problems. I think the district, under this model, is utilizing these people in a proactive way. It’s not good if the social workers are only helping a minimal number of kids. I need the social workers to be proactive, helping a large number of students with things like what it means to have character. There are many levels of intervention available for students. What we don’t want to see is students who need help all year long but are only working with a social worker. They should receive additional interventions.
Parent: We just added more security personnel at the high school. How are those new personnel going to be used?
Dr. Dunlap: The additional personnel will be at the high school, but also give us the capability of sending a person to an elementary school or to a middle school when needed. For example, at one of our elementary schools, parents were dropping off students and blocking traffic. Lou Gentile had to go over there, and straighten out the situation. To have additional people to use at our discretion to deploy to other schools will be helpful.
There are a lot of students in this high school, and there have been budget cuts. We need to look at, with fiscal responsibility, how to use the money that we have to provide a safe environment.
Question: How is the district using the $25,000 Homeland Security Grant funding?
Mr. McGarry: We’ve been going after a lot of grant money. We can’t use it for hiring people, because when the money runs out, we’d have to fire the people. We’re going to use that specific grant money to enhance the camera system at the high school. Currently, the exterior of the building is covered about 75%. At the end of this process, we’ll have 100% coverage. We use the cameras, and if we can get them in all the locations, even the remote ones, it gives us more student accountability. Depending on the availability of funds, we’ll also add cameras inside the school in areas that staff and administrators have deemed a priority. Once we’re approved for the grant, it should take 6 to 10 weeks for the cameras to be installed.
Question: What are the rules regarding students defending and protecting themselves, and how is that explained to students?
Dr. Dunlap: Each principal conveys the message differently, but fighting is not acceptable, and that’s the message. We don’t tolerate fighting. We’re working on a Positive Behavior Initiative Support (PBIS) system to build relationships, and teach kids not to invade physical space. But the reality is that it happens, and everyone has a right to defend themselves.
When something happens, when there is a fight, our administrators investigate exactly what happened in that specific incident. They consult with school security, witnesses, and the students involved to determine whether it was a “mutual fight” or an assault. Administrators make a determination if the person was making attempts to defend themselves and get away, or if it’s a willful fight. If it’s decided that it’s willful, then both students will be punished. In each case, the discipline code is interpreted by the principal—or their designee—in a manner which they deem just, given the circumstances of the individual case.
It would be really helpful if parents can let teachers and administrators know when things happen outside of school, so that we can address it at school. We can help settle issues before they amount to an all-out physical altercation.
Mr. McGarry: If a student is clearly just defending themselves, and trying to get away from the person trying to hurt them, that’s not the same as a willful altercation. School administrators spend a lot of time looking at each case involving fighting, or allegations of fighting, before reaching any disciplinary decision. There are varying levels of disciplinary action depending on whether a student is instigating a fight, attacking another student, or defending themselves. It’s also important to know that verbal issues are as serious as the physical piece. If you instigate a fight, if you egg someone on to throw a punch, that’s as serious as throwing a punch.
Parent: How do we know how these incidents are resolved?
Dr. Dunlap: We can’t necessarily tell you how students are punished, or if they were expelled, for example. As a parent, if your child was involved in an altercation, you have a right to incident reports, to witness statements (witnesses’ names will be blacked out). You can ask the building principal for the incident report.
Parent: How does the district handle it when a student needs to be physically restrained?
Mr. Gentile: When you look at physically restraining a student, I would never tell an 85-pound female teacher to jump into a fight between two high school football players. We have over 4,000 students here at the high school, and sometimes physical altercations happen. One thing we have to do is act quickly to keep physical altercations from escalating where more than two students are involved. You wonder why we’re so harsh with the physical altercations? It’s because it escalates quickly.
Our security personnel are trained, and they do have physical restraints that they can use if they need to. We use restraints, but not impact pressure. We’re not going to hit a student. But the process of restraining can be very physical and appear to be violent. It can be traumatizing to other students to see that.
The high school has 47 entrances. We have a camera system. We are trying to be proactive. We call the police every day. When it comes to physical altercations, we have zero tolerance. Our schools are community based. At three o’clock, the security guards go home. I have one individual that stays here until 10pm.
Question: How is the decision made as to where security guards are stationed?
Mr. Gentile: Security guards aren’t always stationed in the same place. It depends on what the priority is at that particular moment. One major priority is the cafeteria between 10:15 and 1:15–you have 500 kids in there at any time. I talk to the teachers and staff, and we put out the fires where they are. We also need more of a presence in the places where the PA system doesn’t work. I assign each security guard a floor, and they rove. My duties frequently take me to other schools, but I have good people here. There is always someone at the front door. There can also be high profile cases where students are scared – we can target some security detail to that individual.
Question: How can we be assured that our children are safe when students come back after a fight?
Dr. Dunlap: We don’t always know. Things also happen outside the school setting that we don’t even know about. We work with those individuals, we try our best to be proactive and work with those students.
Question: Are district security and safety policies consistent across the schools?
Mr. Gentile: All the uniformed security guys work under the same protocol. Whatever schools these uniformed security personnel are in, it’s the same, but it’s up to the building administration as to how they’re utilized.
Question: At our school [Garrettford], it’s inconsistent. Some days I’m given an ID badge, some days I’m not. Some days it seems like there are security measures in place, some days it doesn’t. I think if it was a little more transparent as to why the safety measures are in place, and if they were consistent every single time, it would help. But it’s difficult for parents and the community to see the importance, when they’re not consistent every single time.
Mr. Gentile: The goal is consistency. Most of the elementary schools don’t have security staff that are assigned to them, but the elementary schools are still supposed to follow the same guidelines. If they’re not doing that, it’s a problem. They’re all supposed to use the Raptor Visitor Management System.
Question: The Raptor system is down a lot.
Mr. Gentile: Yes, the system was down a lot last month. That was due to a problem with the system itself, which is based out of Texas.
Question: My daughter is going to Highland Park, and when kids are registered, their names are posted on the front door, and what classroom they’ll be in. When I asked about that, they said, well you can opt out of that. But you’re giving out information that bad guys may be looking at.
Dr. Dunlap: That’s a good point, and we’ll be looking at that practice and see what other schools do.
Parent: Primos mails a letter, it should be standard operating procedure for the district to mail out. The district has to make things from the top down, consistent, and the district has to follow through.
Question: Can you address the differences in how incidents are reported to the state, in terms of different grade levels? Are there different mandates for reporting, depending on what grade level it is?
Dr. Dunlap: We report everything, but there are differences in how incidents are defined.
Mr. McGarry: Under the school performance guidelines at the state level, there are definitions for each of these acts. Some of those determinations are made by administration, like whether it’s a “real” fight. Some determinations are made by local law enforcement – like whether something is considered aggravated assault.
Local law enforcement also takes into consideration the age of the student. Students under age 10 aren’t going to be charged in the same way. But students at the elementary level can be suspended or expelled. Students are disciplined at all levels.
Each school has a binder that outlines the process very clearly, of how incidents are reported to law enforcement, and how incidents are reported on the state level.
Question: How much of a role does legislation play in terms of not being able to discipline? Does the law hinder you in being able to take further steps? Are your hands tied by legislation, or because the cost is so high?
Dr. Dunlap: It’s not that we avoid it, but there are definite costs to expulsions, including attorney fees and alternate education for some students. We have an obligation to continue to educate our students. Even if a student gets incarcerated, we’re still obligated to educate them. We’re still obligated to pay for their education, even if they’re in prison. That bill comes back to the district.
Mr. McGarry: We testified in front of the state Senate on this issue. We’re on pace to expel more kids this year than we did last year. There is a cost to it, no question. We are not stopping because of the cost, but I did go to Dr. Dunlap recently and bring up the issue that we don’t budget for expulsions. We need to change specific laws. The cost to expel a special education student is far greater than to expel a regular education student.
Kids are leaving other districts, dodging discipline hearings on purpose, and trying to get into our school district, and the paperwork doesn’t follow them for months. According to the Safe Schools Act, that paperwork should be transferred within 10 days. We want to be able to go after those districts for misconduct and get that paperwork.
Question: Can’t we get those other districts to be responsible for the costs?
Mr. McGarry: That’s what we need legislation for.
The Upper Darby Parent Coalition thanked everyone for attending, and for their contributions to the conversation.
A video recording of the evening will be made available on the district website.
Dr. Dunlap concluded by thanking the UDPC, teachers, students, administrators, parents, and members of the community for coming and for having the same goal: making our schools safe so that our students can achieve their potential. He pledged to continue to have transparency and continue to have these conversations.
Mayor Micozzie spoke about upcoming Township events that involve the schools, such as the Tree Lighting event in December.
The meeting concluded at 9:03 p.m.
These minutes represent a summary, and are not intended to be a verbatim transcript.
Joslyn Gray, Upper Darby Parent Coalition