A 17-year-old Cheltenham High School student bringing a gun with two high-capacity magazines to a football game in Abington Friday night sent shock waves through the community, frightening parents over their children’s safety.
To address parents’ concerns, Cheltenham School District Superintendent Brian V Scriven, PhD., held an emergency town hall meeting Monday evening.
The teenager was taken into custody without incident and remanded to the Montgomery County Juvenile Center. Scriven told the gathering of concerned residents and families there was no indication beforehand the student was having problems.
The youth, who was not identified because of this age, attended Myers Elementary School and had been in the district since kindergarten.
“It does hurt my heart,” said Scriven. “That wasn’t a transplant. That was somebody who came through our district, and we failed. And I own it. And that’s why programmatically I’m looking at what can we do to have those safeguards in place?”
A parent in the stands had spotted the gun in the teenager’s waistband and alerted an Abington officer. Officers took the suspect into custody near a rear fence and another male standing near him. A girl who was talking to them was not arrested, and the second male was released Friday night, police said.
Cheltenham Police Chief John Slavin, whose son was at the game, also spoke.
“As a parent, it hits me where I live,” Slavin said. “I’m on the phone with my son, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m not there. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m getting a little anxious.
“This is a national issue,” said Slavin. “It’s not just a Cheltenham issue. It’s not an Abington issue. It’s a national issue. How do we improve?
“The game means nothing, really,” said Slavin. “It’s not even the point. The point is to get everyone out of there safely. That’s the priority, not the sporting event. It’s the students. And the faculty and staff and the visitors who are at this game. And how we can keep them safe.”
He reviewed the last five years and said very few incidents of juveniles with guns were reported in Cheltenham.
“We have to do work on this. Let students know there are consequences for this,” he said, offering to partner with the district.
One parent asked whether the teen would be readmitted to the high school. Scriven said bringing a gun to school called for mandatory one-year expulsion, but the school board will likely revisit that policy.
A mother said her child told her high school kids sometimes bring guns to school to show them off, which seemed to surprise Scriven and high school Principal Jimmy D’Andrea.
Several parents asked for metal detectors to be placed at the doors. Others said there should be screening at all events with security wands, and someone should check people’s bags before they enter venues.
United Parent Group Co-President Lakisha Rodwell Green read a list of ideas her group devised over the weekend. They included better screening, added security at games, walkie-talkies for various group leaders to improve communication, and a buddy system for students for emergencies.
Novice Ezell, a parent, was in the stands with her two elderly parents and worried they would get trampled when some students, who saw the football players run off the field, started running, too. No one told the spectators what was happening, she said.
“It took about 30 minutes to get answers,” said Ezell.
Later, she said she did not “feel comfortable” that her child was safe at school.
“It’s a very unsettling thing to think about: Is my son going to be safe walking into the school? We’ve seen it across the United States: a gun found in a bookbag, a gun found anywhere…Is he safe?”
“This is the first of many conversations,” said Scriven. “I have learned that I cannot 100 percent guarantee that nothing will happen, just like I had no control over Friday. I think collectively, we have to work on our path forward. That’s why I had this town meeting. And that’s why I try to be as transparent as I can be. We need to all do our part.”
“Is there now going to be a commitment to figuring out what we do to take care of our students’ mental health moving forward?” asked Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein. Last year, after the Uvalde, N.M. school shooting, a group of stakeholders met to talk about these issues with state Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D-Glenside). “It kept coming back to mental health, mental health. And one of the things I heard about was really amazing was these groups of people from all works of life, counselors, teachers, therapists, O.T.s, police officers, who are always keeping an eye out for children…” And instead of just trying to help the troubled child, they reach out to the family, she said.
There are programs to help students in crisis in the district, said Scriven, including mentorships and leadership programs, and more are being planned.
Another parent said today’s children have endured active shooter drills since kindergarten.
Both Scriven and Slavin assured the parents Thursday night’s home game with Chester would include new safety procedures and more security personnel.
Nelson said, “If you see something, say something. If you see someone just looking like they’re lost or if they look like they’re a danger to themselves or others…The most important thing we can do when we leave here is commit to being that portion of our community that looks at and after our kids.”
“And when I say ‘our kids,’ I don’t mean my daughter who’s in the eleventh grade,” said Nelson. “I don’t mean your specific children. I mean our kids.”
A red flag law he voted for is also important, he said. This would allow family members to ask law enforcement to take away a gun from a relative who was violent or suicidal. That bill passed the House but not the Senate.
“To the extent there is legislation, know we are on it. We’re working on it. And we will continue to work with the school district and the police department on grants, funding, and support. And to wrap our arms around the district that we all love, and you love.”
To report something suspicious anonymously, call the Safe to Say number: 844-Safe-to-Say.
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