Forum on school and community safety held in Middletown

    by Stewart Gross

    The Peace Center, the Bucks County NAACP, and the Human Relations Council of Bucks County sponsored a community forum last month at the Middletown Township Municipal.

    It was a forum of community leaders “Dedicated to Increasing Safety in Bucks County Schools and Communities.”

    Barbara Simmons of the Peace Center moderated a presentation by nationally recognized school and community safety consultant Bernard G. Hoffman.

    The forum was designed to define the issue, and offer some solutions in a time of unparalleled public violence.

    Mr. Hoffman was a long-time employee of Neshaminy School District where he served as a in various capacities from teacher to Superintendent.

    Since retiring from Neshaminy School District, Hoffman has traveled the country consulting with schools to help them formulate action plans to prevent violent catastrophes.

    He lamented that he began doing this consulting “a couple of days per month” as a part-time retirement engagement that has evolved into “an, everyday job.” 

    Hoffman poignantly observed that you don’t have to go much further back than “yesterday to be able to give an example of a hate crime or violent act.”

    So, how do we deal with what he identifies as an “international issue?”

    One of his solutions to this issue is parenting. “We need more parents to role model healthy ideas.” As a life-long educator who consults largely with educators, he feels that “Schools should not be the ONLY front line. It should be a strong foundation from parents and communities.” 

    Hoffman says that when he consults with schools, “I will tell counselors, psychologists and social workers to tell at-risk students, ‘I am not your decision maker, your parents are.’”

    Another troubling pattern is communities and authorities not sharing and piecing together scary patterns exhibited by troubled children who are potential perpetrators.

    Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, was involved in 69 separate incidents known by local, state and federal authorities, school officials, social services investigators, mental-health counselors and his parents leading up to shootings. Yet no one “red flagged him.”

    Hoffman says that identifying potential perpetrators is easy.

    He calls them “Wired to be Killers.” They all have three commonalities: they demonstrated cruelty to animals, a fascination with guns and explosives, and starting fires.

    All federal authorities, most importantly the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center studied 41 attacks from 2008 thru 2017, and found these three similarities.

    Giving schools resources to deal with school violence and hate crimes would be another big solution to this crisis.

    Hoffman has identified a “Big 5”: bullying, discrimination, harassment, hazing, and intimidation that in most cases leads to the violence.

    He feels that “If there were enough school counselors and social workers on hand in schools the Big 5 could be dealt with and the violence prevented.”

    Hoffman and Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub expressed extreme concern with school entity information sharing.

    Information on children must be shared, and not hidden as schools all over the country are prone to do. 

    Bucks County DA, Matt Weintraub, warned against schools “getting entrenched in bureaucracy.” Schools are afraid of violating privacy laws.

    Therefore, he has recently spent a lot of time meeting with police chiefs and Bucks County superintendents about “Safe to Say Laws” that would give school districts much more latitude in sharing information that could avert catastrophes.

    A positive development Hoffman points to is that federal courts are uniformly convicting students for off-campus behavior that could easily lead to violence and crimes once these students return to the school setting if there is “a nexus.”

    “Nexus Laws” establish a “connection” between community conflicts and students bringing these back into the school setting with them.

    Weintraub concurred, recounting a recent incident in Bucks County where a “troubled young man threatened to shoot up a football game on social media.”

    The information was reported to the DA’s office and the student was in fact 302ed (involuntary commitment to a mental health facility) and arrested.

    He says he “came close to cancelling the football game,” but the troubled youth was arrested before the game and is getting treatment.

    Karen Downer, President of the Bucks County NAACP, shared that her special perspective on school violence “is children of color lashing-out because of racial harassment.”

    Racial harassment looms very large in Hoffman’s “Big 5.” 

    Community leaders on-hand strongly agreed that there is a huge lack of resources for schools to work with.

    Barbara Simmons observed that, “A lot of money has been spent on school entry systems and walkie talkies for staff to carry around, but no money has been spent on putting social workers and counselors in place.”

    Dan O’Brien, a former Philadelphia School teacher, now working as an aid to state Senator Steve Santarsiero agreed, cited that many Bucks school districts have only one social worker.

    All forum participants pointed to the PA state legislature ranking in the bottom 10% nationwide in school funding.

    Hoffman stated that teacher education also needs to change. “Teacher education does not prepare teachers for the world of today. The day of Dick and Jane and the white picket fence are gone.”