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Harrisburg School District administrators are looking for ways to reduce incidents of violence among students

“Collectively, everyone in this room has to be part of the equation."

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF

 Gabriela Martinez / WITF

Harrisburg School District says it is working to address an increase in violent incidents at its schools.

Members of Harrisburg School District’s community heard from school administrators at a public forum held at John Harris High School. The goal of the forum was to address a spate of violence, and seek feedback and solutions from parents and other members of the community.

“I am here to be a piece of the puzzle. I’m not here to solve all the problems, because collectively, everyone in this room has to be part of the equation,” said District Superintendent Eric Turman.

The majority of schools in the district, including John Harris High School, Cougar Academy and Rowland Academy, have seen an increase in violence this school year. Downey Elementary School had four incidents last year. This year, there have been 69 incidents so far.

The district also shared data that showed an increase in suspensions.

Turman said the spike reflects the decision to transition fifth grade from a middle school level to an elementary level. Now, elementary schools have more students.

“Some of the fifth grade behavior you saw at the middle school is now starting to rear its head at the elementary level,” Turman said.

The district hired a director of school police, Wendell Morris, who started his position at the beginning of the school year. The school filled 41 out of its 46 school safety monitor positions.

Lori Suski, the district’s court-appointed receiver, said the district will have to make decision policing. Those policing measures could entail hiring school resource officers–sworn law enforcement personnel who work in schools– or developing its own district police force. Suski will be in charge of vetting any plan the district brings forth. 

“We know that some community members have concerns about having armed police officers in schools. They don’t want schools to look like prisons,’” Suski said. “I understand why the community may have those concerns, but we also know that the presence of an officer in a school is a deterrent, sometimes for some of the behaviors that go on.”

The district also highlighted some of the mental health support programs it already has available in the district. It also announced plans to roll out a student mentorship program in January.

Angela Waters, a parent of a 12th-grader, said she attended the forum to hear solutions. Waters said the violent fights at her daughter’s high school have become a recurring problem.

“It’s challenging for her, and then with all the violence, she’s not used to that. She already has anxiety. So that doesn’t help the situation. It disrupts her school days.  I fear that the teachers are paying so much more attention to the discord that’s going on, versus teaching the kids that want to learn,” Waters said, before the event had started.

The panel of administrators heard from members of the audience for roughly 15 minutes during the hour-long event.

“What I’d like to turn around is not to see more students at my funeral home, we have got to put a stop to this,” said Angela Ulen, who is the director of a funeral home in Harrisburg.

The event was prompted by recent violent incidents at the district schools, including a 22-student fight at John Harris High School that left one injured. Since that incident, the high school has doubled the number of security guards and temporarily increased police presence at that school.

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