Contentious meeting yields little
Concerned parents and other residents brought their dissatisfaction to the Saucon Valley School Board meeting Jan. 28, building on the impassioned plea led by Jennifer Schmell at the previous meeting earlier that month.
The meeting seemed to begin on a positive, proactive note, with Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler providing a report regarding school safety and security. He said all staff members have received training on ALICE safety strategies, which is a popular active shooter response program used by schools, businesses and other institutions. He also highlighted the district’s relationship with the Lower Saucon Police Department, who provide a “quick” response time to the district’s campus, as well as noting the district’s recently upgraded security and surveillance camera systems, among other efforts. “Furthermore, I am in the process of establishing a task force that will be addressing climate and culture strategies moving forward,” Butler said to conclude his statement.
The business portion of the meeting was a short, succinct one, which would not go unnoticed by Schmell as she followed up her comments from the last board meeting with an even more scathing criticism of the board, noting that she was not planning on “going anywhere until a full-time SRO (School Resource Officer) for at least two of our schools goes into the agenda and is approved.” She was adamant that the approval and hiring of an SRO should have been “old business” at this point, but was instead met with “absolutely no comments from any of the members of this board,” highlighted by “dismissive” and “disrespectful” postures, she said.
Schmell also highlighted several examples of what she perceives as overlooked environmental student safety concerns, relayed by a friend who works in the district, such as doors “propped open” in gymnasiums and cafeterias. “It seems like this board is focused more on managing a lean budget and housekeeping tasks… than advancing initiatives that directly improve our children’s educational experiences and safety,” she said. “I have to ask: what are you guys doing?” When she posited a line of direct questioning to Dr. Butler, District Solicitor Mark Fitzgerald reminded him that he is not required by law to answer Schmell.
At that point, the meeting turned confrontational, with Fitzgerald reiterating the board’s policy on the structure of the meeting, which in turn seemed to upset Schmell and other attendees. “This is not a question and answer process,” Fitzgerald said. In response, Schmell asked, “So what is the process to get questions answered?” “The board and the administration will respond as they determine necessary to the inquiries that are brought forth by the public” was Fitzgerald’s reply. The meeting continued to become even more contentious, with four more residents, including two who are currently employed in neighboring school districts, joining Schmell in front of the board to support her and add their own comments and criticism. Fitzgerald engaged with them multiple times as he tried to maintain order as well as protect the board, and administration from any potential legal issues.
As the public comments wrapped up, Dr. Butler expressed his appreciation for the engagement shown by the public for this particular subject. “Please know it’s unrealistic and improper, I think, for you to come to the board, speak passionately and then get no answers from me,” he said. He explained that two previous districts that he worked for employed SROs, and that the Saucon Valley School District did, in fact, have a meeting dedicated to this particular topic in 2019. Board member Michael Karabin added that he did not remember “any police department recommending that we hire an SRO immediately,” which Butler confirmed. Karabin said that he has done a “tremendous” amount of research on the topic and that he does not feel that the presence of an SRO necessarily makes an impact, which elicited some chatter among the attendees.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For some reason, Chris Haring’s Saucon Valley reports have been slipping into our junk folder unnoticed. We apologize to Chris and our readers. The situation has been resolved.