Fighting for safety

Neshaminy petitions Lower Southampton for School Resource Officer in elementary schools

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Voices of concern: Students, teachers and parents are petitioning Lower Southampton Township for a School Resource Officer at Poquessing Middle School, and Tawanka and Joseph E. Ferderbar Elementary Schools. Source: Tawanka Elementary School

Kids today aren’t oblivious. As one school shooting after another continues to plague our nation, they’re not ignorant to this violence. Even elementary schoolers understand that what happened in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 — when 17 innocent Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and staff were killed — could happen anywhere, anytime.

During the most recent Lower Southampton Township board of supervisors meeting on Feb. 13, a handful of students, teachers and parents petitioned for Poquessing Middle School, and Tawanka and Joseph E. Ferderbar Elementary Schools, to receive a School Resource Officer. Their overarching argument was that an SRO would not only serve as a deterrence for violence, but an educational tool.

The SRO topic was first brought to light in August 2018, when the Neshaminy School District made a presentation to Lower Southampton Township, proposing the idea.

“The board was concerned about the level of funding offered by the district and also asked for a comprehensive plan from the district on how the SRO was going to make our school students safer,” said supervisors chairman Ray Weldie.

Nothing, including the submission of the comprehensive plan, occurred until Jan. 23, when the topic was brought up again because Middletown Township approved an SRO. Currently, Officer Melissa Robinson serves at Maple Point and Carl Sandburg Middle Schools, both part of the Neshaminy School District but under the jurisdiction of Middletown. There is also an SRO at Neshaminy High School.

Prior to the supervisors meeting on Feb. 13, a private discussion was arranged with school board members Steve Pirritano, Cyndie Bowman and Tina Hollenbach. The district proposed covering approximately one-third of an officer’s salary and benefits, and asked Lower Southampton to cover the remaining two-thirds. The district has requested one SRO at a rate of $50,000 per year.

According to statistics provided by Neshaminy, Lower Southampton students have been the fastest-growing population percentage in the school district. In the last five years, approximately 2 percent, or 160 additional students, mainly attributed to growth in dense housing projects over this period.

In the last two academic years (2016–17 and 2018–19), the district needed to create additional classroom grade level sections, while hiring five new additional teaching staff in each of the last school years for a total of 10 new positions based on enrollment numbers. Prior to the 2016–17 school year, there were no new positions within the five-year window.

During the public portion of the supervisors meeting, locals provided their thoughts on how an SRO would keep this ever-growing student population safe. First to take the floor was Pirritano, vice president of the board of school directors. He informed attendees that the work session was “productive,” and thanked the supervisors for dedicating almost half the meeting to discussing the SRO. He also stressed that there’s “more work to do on both ends.”

Several students had speeches prepared, including Poquessing eighth grader Sylvie Colon.

“A resource officer will help our school to become safer. Earlier this week, there was a fight at Neshaminy High School that caused the entire school to go on lockdown,” she said. “The resource officer was able to step in before the police could, and reduce the amount of harm inflicted on other students.”

Colon also explained how a School Resource Officer could serve as a role model and positive influence for students who may not have such a thing at home. Additional student arguments touched on how an SRO would help them see law enforcement in a less fearful way, making them more likely to report a problem; and how having a first responder in-house would drastically increase response time in the face of an emergency.

Still, the overarching message of the students was safety, and how they would feel less frightened of violence and school shootings with an SRO present.

“Our children deserve the same resources, services, positive influence, level of safety and security as our counterparts on the other end of the district,” said Christine Richardson, a longtime sixth-grade science teacher at Poquessing. “I’ve been an advocate for our Lower Southampton kids for 26 years.”

Richardson encouraged the supervisors to speak with Andy Sokol and Dawn Kelly, the principals of Maple Point and Carl Sandburg, about the SRO at their schools. Both had nothing but positive things to say.

“The implementation of the SRO program has shown positive interactions with students both in the hallways and classrooms,” said Kelly. “Officer Robinson has provided mini lessons to our students in the areas of vaping, drugs, bullying, etc. There is a sense of greater safety in the building from our students and staff with her presence. She has begun to develop some parental relationships as well.”

Though nothing was officially decided at the meeting, the community is being asked to stay tuned for updates.

“We have agreed to continue our dialogue with Neshaminy School District in the near future as we negotiate a deal that permits the board to do what is best for the taxpayers and school children in Lower Southampton Township,” Weldie said. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com