The labor union for teachers in the Erie School District is increasing pressure on the district to make security changes at Erie High School in response to Tuesday’s shooting inside the building.
The teachers are refusing to return to in-person instruction “within the building,” until the administration of Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito installs metal detectors and undertakes other security improvements at the 2,300-student Erie High, according to a letter that the Pennsylvania State Education Association sent to Polito on Tuesday.
The PSEA includes the 860-member Erie Education Association, which represents teachers and other professionals in the Erie School District. About 150 teachers are at Erie High, according to district records.
The letter states the shooting shows working conditions at Erie High are “fundamentally unsafe.” Police said one student, who is younger than 15, shot another student at least three times in a hallway at around 9:20 am on Tuesday. The suspect remained at large on Wednesday, and the victim was in stable condition at the hospital, police said.
Latest developments:Police: Victim in shooting at Erie High School hit 3 times; gang activity not suspected
“While the EEA acknowledges the District’s managerial rights to direct the workforce, the EEA vehemently asserts that the District cannot legally direct EEA members to work from an unsafe and dangerous work environment,” according to the letter, signed by a PSEA representative, Carolyn M Funkhouser, based at the PSEA regional office in Edinboro. “Without additional and demonstrative efforts on behalf of the District, as it currently stands, the High School is a fundamentally unsafe and dangerous work environment.
“Therefore,” according to the letter, “be advised that beginning immediately and until certain processes and safeguards are in place to protect students and staff, the EEA membership shall be working remotely from home in the same way they did during district / building lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. “
Among the demands are the “installation of fully functioning metal detectors. Until that can be accomplished, all students shall be scanned with handheld electronic devices which detect weapons.”
The letter also demands that the district immediately install “fully functioning” locks on doors, and provide fully functioning communication devices, such as walkie-talkies and phones. And the letter demands “an increase in security and / or police presence in highly visible and well-trafficked areas” at the 500,000-square-foot Erie High, at 3325 Cherry St.
Also requested: no student cell phone use
Once those demands are met, according to the letter, the teachers will return to in-person instruction at Erie High. The letter said the EEA members then want to work with the school district to resolve other issues, including the adoption of “a policy of no student cell phone use during class unless so instructed by the teacher, consistentlyapplied and consistently enforced. Cell phones would ideally be locked up in bags during class so teachers are able to access them in cases of emergency or when necessary. “
The EEA, according to the letter, also wants to work with the district to implement “uniforms for students, including clear backpacks / bags.”
Earlier coverage:DA, police: Suspect in Erie High shooting is under 15, still at large
The Erie School District administration and the EEA will have about two weeks to work on the union’s requests until the teachers attempt to follow through on their ultimatum about remote-only instruction. In response to the shooting, the district on Tuesday canceled all classes at Erie High, in-person and remote, for the rest of the week. The district starts spring break next week, with April 18 the last day of vacation. In-person classes are to resume on April 19.
Polito was not immediately available for comment on the PSEA letter. He said on Tuesday that Erie High has never had metal detectors, but that staff use security wands on students who arrive late and that staff also randomly check students using the wands.
Polito said the district will develop a safety plan for Erie High students in advance of the students’ return. He said the district will release details of that plan to families before classes resume.
“We are devastated and angered by this senseless tragedy, and we are all hoping for the full and speedy recovery of the student involved,” Polito said in a statement on Tuesday. “I want to thank district and city police for their very prompt and thorough response.
“Incidents like these are a reflection of a troubling rise in youth violence in Erie,” Polito said. “As we ask the entire community to come together to address this challenge, we are working on a comprehensive plan for students and staff to safely return to school. The well-being of our students and staff is and always will be our priority, and we will take every measure possible to ensure their safety and security. “
EEA president also critical of district
The PSEA letter came the same day that the president of the EEA sharply criticized the school district over what the union claims are deficient safety measures at Erie High. The EEA, like the PSEA, said it had raised security issues with the administration before.
“No bureaucracy is worth a human life,” according to the statement, from EEA President Mary Theuerkauf. “We will not stand by one day more until the safety of our students and staff is properly addressed. This is a demand, not a suggestion, that Administration and School Board start acting to protect the lives in our buildings.”
Other details:The Erie High School shooting: What we know
In its letter, the PSEA said union officials met in Polito’s office in January to review union members’ safety concerns about Erie High, “specifically related to student abuse and violence. At that time, the Erie Education Association provided the District with a list of items that needed to be immediately addressed, each ofwhich was discussed in detail at that meeting. “
The letter continues, referring to Tuesday’s shooting: “Unfortunately, today the students and staff at Erie High School were deeply and traumatically impacted by the horrific choice of one student to smuggle a firearm into the building undetected and violently shoot a fellow student.
“When the EEA represents to the District that abusive and violent student behaviors are increasing and multiplying in frequency, that is simply because it is true. Staff and students are fundamentally unsafe at the High School, and other schools are quickly becoming that way as well . “
Earlier tensions between union, school district
The PSEA letter and EEA statement are the latest evidence of tension between the EEA and the district administration this academic year, a year in which teachers returned to in-person instruction after teaching remotely during the pandemic.
In October, the EAA authorized a strike unless the district and the union soon reached a new three-year contract. The two sides agreed to a deal days later.
Tense talks:Days after strike vote, tentative contract reached with Erie School District teachers’ union
In explaining the strike vote, Theuerkauf, the EEA president, said the EEA wanted a new contract to recognize the hardships that teachers and others faced during the pandemic, a sentiment echoed in an EEA internal memo on the negotiations.
“After a year-and-a-half of the most difficult adjustments that any of us have seen, both in the classroom and our own families, the lack of appreciation our members feel has added to the mental and physical strain,” according to the memo. “Coping with challenges in our own lives while also trying to ‘re-orient’ students to in-person learning is contributing to burn-out and breakdowns.”
The new contract included average pay increases of 2.7% and limited health care increases for EEA members. The contract also eliminated union-related preferences for coaching hires, a change the district administration wanted.
Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.