Josh Shapiro

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro talks during a 2019 interview.

Adding more mental health resources and building positive relationships with students were the main topics of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown school safety forum Wednesday.

The virtual event was organized by students in Gerald Zahorchak’s education law, policy and ethics class and featured a panel that included Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium Director of Programs and Delivery Karmen Rouland, interim Johnstown police Chief Chad Miller and Indiana Area School District Superintendent Michael Vuckovich.

Zahorchak is a former state secretary of education.

“I believe that everyone has a role to play in this process,” Shapiro said. “We have to try to innovate and come up with new ways to reach kids who are in need, including making child protective and mental health services available in neighborhoods and at home not just in the schools and make sure that these are resources that everyone knows about.”

Raymond Wrabley, Pitt-Johnstown chair of the division of social sciences and division of business and enterprise and political science professor, moderated Wednesday’s event.

Before leaving the Zoom call, Shapiro told the group of around 66 participants that when it comes to school safety, what he’s heard from students and from the state’s Safe2Say Something hotline is that mental health is a major concern across the state. 

During his comments, Vuckovich said being safe and feeling safe are two different concepts.

He also stressed the need for strong relationships with students, advocating that such an approach helps with schools safety.

“Positive relationships help students be safe, feel safe but also keep others safe,” Vuckovich said. 

Miller shared a similar sentiment, reflecting on his time as a school resource officer.

He said the purpose of that position is to build relationships in an institution by working with students and staff and noted that an SRO isn’t there to enforce a code of conduct.

During his time with the Greater Johnstown School District, Miller spent more time with deescalation efforts and building trust, he said.

That led to more conversations with students that were preventative instead of reactive.

“The great thing about being in the school is that you get to know the kids,” Miller said. “You get to know what they’re facing on a daily basis, what their home life is like.”

He added that creating a good relationship in that environment also establishes a positive connection to other police officers.

For Rouland’s portion of the event, she spoke on the topic of equity in relation to school safety.

She said the two were absolutely related.

“I think that equity and the work that we see is about creating environments ... that students can thrive in where it feels like not only physically safe but mentally safe, academically safe – so they can be their best self and perform,” Rouland said.

The way MAEC does that with clients is through a lens of cultural responsiveness. 

Wednesday’s event wrapped up with Wrabley asking the panelists what they believe future educators should be aware of in relation to school safety.

Miller said the upcoming teachers should pay attention to student behavior and pointed to domestic issues at home as a source of possible problems, while Rouland stressed a need for overall safety.

Vuckovich touched on intervention policies and a need for discipline to be therapeutic.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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