Testimony of Michelle Twersky Before Pennsylvania's House Select Committee on School Safety

Posted on July 19, 2013 In Blog


Watch Michelle’s testimony at 25:10, as well as her Q&A with Representatives Gary Day, Cherelle Parker, Marcy Toepel, Mike Regan, Patty Kim, and Patrick Harkins at 40:17.

Chairman Day, Vice-Chairwoman Parker and members of the House Select School Safety Committee: Thank you for inviting me to participate in today’s hearing. My name is Michelle Twersky and I am the Pennsylvania Associate Regional Political Director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. I am here today representing not only the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization in the United States and our nearly 1,000 congregations, but the Pennsylvania Affiliate of the Council on American Private Education, known as PA CAPE, and the private school community as well.

The Jewish population within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania numbers approximately 300,000. Our communities, while smaller than other Jewish metropolitan areas in the northeast, are active and vibrant. The Pennsylvania Jewish community includes a dynamic representation of all Jewish denominations, ranging from the most liberal to the most conservative. In addition, several thousand Jewish students attend more than a dozen Jewish day schools located in the greater Philadelphia Area, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton and here in Harrisburg.

The tragic event that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December has led to great public concern about school safety and security. Unfortunately, this is not a new concern for Jewish institutions. Around the world, Jewish schools, houses of worship, and community centers have been targets of terror and defamation. Security is of paramount importance to the Jewish community at large in order to protect our way of life and the freedoms we cherishA culture of security prevents us from succumbing to terror and violence.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2011 remained at a disturbing level. In addition, the troubling manifestations of anti-Semitism in non-Jewish school bullying incidents and vandalisms continue to be reported in significant numbers. The ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents recorded 1,080 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2011.[1]

Some of the Jewish schools in Pennsylvania have shared information about anti-Semitic occurrences with me. In Philadelphia, there have been multiple incidents of drive-bys calling out racial slurs as children board and disembark the bus at school. Here at our school in Harrisburg, an unidentified individual left neo-Nazi brochures and materials at the front desk of the building.

The ADL continues to receive a distressing number of complaints about non-Jewish children, adolescents and teenagers engaging in anti-Semitic behavior, both on and off school grounds. These incidents include physical assaults, threats of violence, and verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes or evoking disturbing Holocaust themes. Some examples of recent anti-Semitic incidents in Pennsylvania include the following:[2]

Philadelphia, February 2011: An 81-year old Jewish man found a red swastika and the word “Nazi” scrawled on his front door.

Chalfont, February 2011: A middle-school student had numbers written on his arm by another student, who then told him to “Go die in the ovens.”

New Britain, December 2011: A Jewish student was depicted in a drawing at school as being lynched, while another character in the drawing—adorned with swastikas—was pointing and laughing.

Doylestown, October 2011:  A Jewish student was singled out by name in a graffiti incident at his high school in which the school building was vandalized with the phrase “Student’s name] is a Jewish fag.”

Our community’s schools are doing the best they can to make sure they are applying for all the resources available. After each anti-Semitic occurrence, Jewish schools reassess their plans and procedures and see what they can do to improve and make their schools safer.

Each of our schools has gone through one or more security assessments. The local police have conducted some assessments while other assessments have been conducted by paid security consultants. The security assessments help schools identify how to allocate their funds better and also inform schools where they need the most improvement, so that they can spend their money wisely. For example, while a school director or principal may think that the school needs more cameras, the security assessment may identify that their real need is a lockdown system.

Our community’s schools have good relationships with their local police, who respond quickly and sensitively whenever an incident occurs. When some communities have experienced problems or threats of any kind, the police have left an unmanned car in school parking lots in order to deter anyone else from causing harm.

The protection of the Jewish community is not solely the responsibility of law enforcement, however. It is incumbent upon us, the members of the Jewish community, to take an active role in protecting our own institutions. Doing so not only creates a sense of confidence and empowerment, but also nurtures a culture of shared responsibility for our security. Some Jewish day schools have joined their community civic leagues and others have created parent-run task forces. Several schools are doing whatever it takes to make sure that their students are safe.

Jewish schools have always taken a proactive role in their own security. They must do so—they have no other choice. Our schools conduct security assessments and write emergency procedure plans. They update their security equipment as much as they can financially afford. They keep their doors locked and employ a security guard if they can afford one. In most schools, visitors must be announced and wear a badge.  This summer, one school in Lower Merion is putting blinds on its windows and another is attending a conference to learn how to create an emergency plan and prioritize its needs. The school in Harrisburg is changing its classroom doorknobs so they lock when closed for a lockdown situation.

Besides equipment and a guard, proper training is key. Some of our schools have worked with the local police to learn about best practices and to provide training for their teachers. They have spent a significant amount of time during their in-service days focusing on this topic. One school hired an outside company to train the teachers as well as the students. Everyone inside a school building—administrators, teachers, other staff and students—must be vigilant at all times.

Unfortunately, the cost of keeping a school safe is prohibitive. Some relief is available for our schools located in the greater Philadelphia area and Pittsburgh through the Federal Urban Area Security Initiative Grant. This grant provides funds for non-profit organizations located in eligible urban areas to purchase target-hardening equipment such as cameras and door buzzers. Since the program’s inception, several Jewish schools in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have received the grant, which allowed them to install target-hardening equipment in their schools. But what about the Jewish schools in Allentown, Scranton and Harrisburg? They are equally as vulnerable to anti-Semitism and terror attacks as schools in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. What about all the other non-public schools that are located outside the specific eligible urban areas?

What good is all the time put into developing security plans and training when schools lack the funding to implement them? Schools may have a plan in place, but how can they execute the plan if the doors on the classrooms do not lock and there is no funding to replace them?

Without the proper funding for security equipment or a guard, schools are vulnerable.

The only source of state funding now available for safety is the Safe Schools targeted grants. Until very recently, non-public schools were not even eligible for this grant. While our schools are very thankful for this grant, the pending expansion of the grant program does not guarantee funding. Another challenge for schools is that there is no consistency with a grant. Schools need consistency. They need to know that there will be funding on an ongoing basis to help them. Each year they know that funding is available for textbooks. Security should be the same. All schools must be able to provide a safe and secure learning environment for their students.

I conclude my testimony by urging the Select Committee on School Safety to include in its recommendations a statement that schools require ongoing, consistent funding to support a safe and secure learning environment—and that funding may be used for various needs, including improving school building security, planning, training or personnel. I also recommend you allow flexibility within your recommendations since every school has different needs and priorities.

Thank you for providing the Orthodox Union and PA CAPE the opportunity to share our thoughts with you on this critical issue.