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  • Safety: Our Foundational and Operational Imperative

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 10/8/2019 7:30:00 AM

    Superintendent Joe McFarlan Student ServicesDerry Township School District’s highest priority is the health, safety, and welfare of our school community. This includes students, staff, and visitors alike. In my more than 17 years with the District, including the last six as superintendent, I have remained steadfast in this commitment. These are not mere words, but our bedrock foundational and operational imperative.

    A significant portion of the District’s comprehensive strategic plan is dedicated to safe and supportive schools, and this will be true moving forward.

    Work on this front has included completion of an updated campus-wide risk and vulnerability assessment, earmarking of significant dollars in our capital improvement plan for safety related infrastructure, and the creation of a new position, Supervisor of Safe and Supportive Schools, which is staffed by former police officer, Mr. Steve Beard.

    Our commitment to safety extends beyond efforts to better secure the physical well-being of our student body. Significant attention is being given to the social and emotional well-being of our students as well. Whether it be

    • programs in the elementary school like Second Step that teach empathy, impulse control, problem-solving and bullying prevention,
    • the creation of advisory time in the middle school that allows for small group learning and making sure all students have a meaningful connection with a trusted staff member,
    • Talks with Teachers at the high school, student-led Random Acts of Kindness, Aevidum, We Matter and SADD clubs at the high school,
    • Or The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a comprehensive, school-wide program
    • We have programs in place designed to foster a positive school climate.

    Our Student Services staff now includes nine counselors, three school psychologists supported by four masters level psychologist interns, a social worker and a behavior specialist.

    The Student Assistance Program is one of the few supports that is mandated in grades K-12 by PA Department of Education since 1990. Our Student Assistance Program – the Hershey Intervention & Prevention Program or HIP for short – is a team process used to mobilize school resources to remove barriers to learning. HIP is designed to assist in identifying issues including alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, mental health concerns and other issues which pose a barrier to a student’s success. The Hershey Intervention & Prevention Program is comprised of a multi- disciplinary team including a District administrator, a building administrator, school counselors, a certified school nurse, a school social worker, a school psychologist, and classroom teachers.

    Representatives of community agencies work closely with the team. Chemical dependency counselors and mental health professionals act as ad-hoc liaisons to the teams and provide support for students and families as needed. The Hershey Intervention & Prevention Program (HIP) is a voluntary process designed to gather data to assist in the assessment of the student needs for help and support. The involvement of parents or guardians is key to this process. As part of the HIP process, we first connect each student referred with a caring adult that acts as an additional point of contact or support for the student in school. Among the resources available to students and their families as part of HIP is school-based outpatient therapy. If outpatient counseling is requested or deemed to be a suggested support, referrals can be made to area providers, but we have found that in the two years we have been providing space for TEAMCare Behavioral Health Services to provide school based outpatient therapy during the school day on school grounds, we are better able to provide this much needed assistance.

    To supplement our HIP program, we have partnered with Dr. Deepa Sekhar and the Penn State Hershey Medical Center to provide Mental Health/Mood Screenings to students in the High School. This is part of a three year grant and we are grateful that Dr. Sekhar has included our District in this opportunity. We screened over 600 students last week and were able to make connections with students that we may have not have known were struggling. Students with elevated scores on the survey will be referred to HIP for in school or out of school supports.

    In conjunction with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, we offer Safe2Say Something, an anonymous information or Tip line that provides students a confidential way to share tips about school safety or concerns regarding fellow students who may be considering self-harm or harm to others.

    We value our long-standing partnership with the Derry Township Police Department, which includes the assignment of a School Resource Officer (SRO) stationed on our campus. The national model and role of the SRO is three-fold. The SRO acts as a support or law-related counselor, a law-related educator, and, of course when necessary, a law enforcement officer. Officer Mary Kepple has done a phenomenal job of exemplifying all three facets of this role. She has made it a point to get to know the students and families she serves personally. She provides Halloween Safety talks for the young ones, and bike safety and other classroom presentations on law enforcement related topics. Students in our District have grown up with Officer Mary and know her as a support. However, the students also know that when the line is crossed, she does need to exercise her duties as a law enforcement official. Regardless of the incident, infraction, or violation of law, Officer Mary can and will intervene and exercise her arrest power when warranted. However, her close relationship with the school district provides a unique perspective and enables her to consider the whole child and the whole situation as part of the law enforcement process. This is the value of the SRO position.

    I don’t cite these – or any of the other exceptional work being done in these areas by our staff and student leaders – to suggest that we are a perfect system. School safety and campus climate is an ongoing process that we must remained focused on and there are always areas for growth, expansion or improvement. However, some have claimed the District “does nothing” when it comes to the social and emotional well-being of students. Such assertions are not supported by facts, and fail to recognize the many important initiatives in our District aimed at promoting a safe and healthy environment for all or students. In addition, such statements ignore the contributions of the taxpayers who fund our programs, discount the hard work of our staff, administrators and Board of School Directors and, perhaps worst of all, insult the vast majority of our student body who strive every day to be positive role models and create a school culture we should all be proud of.

    I recognize that over the last few weeks there have been some disappointing incidents in our school community that have necessitated the imposition of student discipline. Recognizing our legal obligation to protect student confidentiality, we have not been at liberty to share some details about these incidents and the resulting consequences. That has led some to speculate and others to make incorrect assumptions regarding our commitment to our shared principles. Let me be clear, physical altercations have no place in our schools and we remain committed to fostering the type of school environment we can all be proud of.

    Fortunately, issues like this have not been common in our schools, and perhaps this relative rarity magnifies them when they do occur. I understand the emotion expressed by our students and families, because we feel it too. But I encourage us all to resist allowing the unfortunate actions of a few overshadow the many positive actions and contributions of our student body as a whole. Our hope is that we can work together to support one another on behalf of the children rather than wasting precious time in seeking to assign blame.

    I thank you for your continued support in this important work.

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  • Ignore the Advertising: Vaping is Not Safe for Students

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 9/13/2019

    CDC Vaping Facts graphic Lost in the other headlines of the week is a story that needs more attention.  The Food and Drug Administration warned a leading manufacturer of vaping products about its advertising claims. The ads suggest e-cigarettes are a healthier alternative to smoking; the FDA scolded Juul, noting that making such claims without scientific evidence to support it is unlawful.

    “Juul has ignored the law, and very concurringly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth. In addition, we’re troubled about several issues related to Juul’s outreach and marketing practices that came to light in a recent Congressional hearing. We will continue to scrutinize tobacco product marketing and take action as appropriate to ensure that the public is not misled into believing a certain product has been proven less risky or less harmful,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D.

    Sadly, it seems many young people believe that vaping products are, in fact, “safe.”  As I noted in a previous blog post, this false sense of security is alarming and has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of student’s vaping. Since that original blog post, even more information has come our warning there are very scary health consequences for youth (and adults) who vape.  In August, the FDA announced it was looking at a possible link between vaping and seizures.  And now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating 450 possible cases of lung disease linked to vaping.

    Previously, CDC Researchers analyzing vaping liquids said some kinds of e-liquids have been found to form irritating chemicals called acetals while they're sitting on stores shelves. The CDC said more than 3 million young people in middle school and high school, use e-cigarettes and vaping product meaning many of them could be inhaling these compounds regularly.

    Please continue to emphasize to your own students that vaping is, in fact, NOT safe.  And remind them vaping on school grounds is a violation of district policy that carries consequences.

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  • Tips for Parents and Guardians about Momo

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 3/15/2019

    Internet Safety graphic The cinnamon challenge, chat roulette, lip plumping, the Tide Pod Challenge… the list of online/social media fads aimed at young people is an exhaustive one.  Some, like those whose aims are to raise money for charity or call attention to a social issue – the Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance – can actually serve a beneficial purpose.  Most, like those that involved eating spicy peppers or distasteful foods, are merely pointless.  Sadly, too many are downright dangerous.  To the latter category, add Momo.


    If you’re not familiar, Momo videos features a bug-eyed woman with stringy hair and the body of a bird.  Momo first appeared online last year on Facebook and YouTube and later, video games.  She seemed to fade away, but has subsequently resurfaced. Why is this a concern?  Some children find Momo’s appearance sinister and disturbing.  Like the older internet meme, Slender Man, they worry this factious character is a real villain who will show up to terrify them.


    Of greater concern, however, are Momo challenges, which encourage violence and self-harm. Momo challenges allegedly include videos and social media posts encourage children to take part in dangerous activities that range from stabbing people to even suicide. Additionally, the video asks that children produce and post evidence of the task. If they don’t comply, the video threatens to hurt them with an “evil spell.” The viral challenge sometimes appears in disguise, hidden insidiously midway through Kids YouTube posts, online games and cartoons.


    As parents and educators, there are things we can all do to protect children online. The organization National Online Safety produced a guide that includes top tips for parents related to the Momo challenge. As a resource, that document is linked here. I encourage you to read the tips and to address the topic of internet safety with your child.


    It is critical that we – educators, parents and the community at large - continue to work together in creating safe and healthy learning and home environments for our students. I am grateful for your partnership and remind you that our schools have supports such as counselors, psychologists and our Hershey Intervention & Prevention Program (HIP) which are here to help.

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  • Vaping - Not a Safe Alternative!

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 1/25/2019 12:50:00 PM

    No Vaping graphic The vaping industry has portrayed vaping as the “safe alternative” to smoking.  Our youth (and many adults) have bought into that marketing ploy.  As a result, we are seeing a huge and very troubling increase in vaping among students.  We are addressing this problem in our schools, but this is a societal issue that extends beyond our walls and one  we need everyone’s help to address.

    First, we all need to be better educated on the true facts about vaping and its effects on our bodies.   It was noted In the January 10 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that “The 1-year increases in prevalence of nicotine vaping translate into approximately 1.3 million additional adolescents who vaped in 2018, as compared with 2017.”  The article went on to note “…the absolute increases in the prevalence of nicotine vaping among 12th graders and 10th graders are the largest ever recorded by Monitoring the Future in the 44 years that it has continuously tracked dozens of substances.”

    There is also growing research and evidence that clearly shows the harmful effects of this “harmless” habit.  For example, the National Center for Health Research  noted that all vaping products contain nicotine as well as many harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene (a known cancer-causing chemical).  Here are a few other links to help educate ourselves on the truths about vaping: 

    I urge everyone to read these articles as well as many others. 

    Hershey High School will be launching a Family Education Speaker Series this spring with the first session being a presentation entitled, “Clearing the Air about Vaping and Substance Abuse.”  This session will be held on Thursday, March 7 and will be a great opportunity for parents and guardians to learn more about the dangers associated with vaping.  Please plan now to attend and share this invitation with all parents, grandparents and friends!  We owe it to our children to help them understand the truth about this dangerous habit.  It is addictive and potentially deadly.  It is NOT a safe alternative….no matter what the industry would want us to believe! 

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  • Information on Weather-Related School Schedule Changes

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 11/14/2018

    Snowflakes graphic The safety and well-being of our students is our highest priority at Derry Township School District. At DTSD, we make decisions by relying on forecast models, recommendations from emergency management personnel, reports from our Transportation Department staff and the township road crews and we consult with other local school districts. After careful and thoughtful review, the district then makes what we believe to be the best decision based on the information it has available at the time.


    We often have to make decisions BEFORE a weather system arrives. Any change to the usual schedule involves an inherent operational time lag. Buses need drivers and drivers need time to report to the bus garage, prepare their vehicles and then travel out to the first stop on their routes.  And then, of course, there’s the time it takes for buses to complete the route. As a practical matter, “go/no go” decisions” must be made 2-2:30 hours PRIOR to the normal opening bell. Even with the best predictors, however, conditions can change quickly and in ways not forecast or foreseen. So we are in constant communication so that, if need be, we can change our original plans in the best interest of safety.


    When conditions dictate unscheduled closings, delays, or early dismissals are in the best interest of student safety, the district will announce information via an automated phone messaging system, on its website and social media feeds. These district-operated notification tools are the primary mechanisms by which schedule change information will be communicated.

    In the event of a weather-related schedule change announced outside of normal school hours, calls from our high speed messaging system will go to the number(s) families have designated as their “home/primary phone(s)” on the student information system.  In the event of an early dismissal announced during the course of a school day, we reach out to all phone numbers (primary/home, work, mobile, etc.) we have for your family in a good faith effort to reach parents and guardians wherever they may be during the day.
    When school schedule changes are announced outside of normal school hours, that information is also shared with a variety of local media outlets as a courtesy. All decisions on how this information is then used are at the sole discretion of each individual outlet. The manner by which this information is shared (broadcast, web post, push notification, etc.), the frequency of publication and the accuracy of the language used to do so is the responsibility of each media outlet. 

    Whatever Mother Nature throws our way this winter, be assured that we’ll do our best to make the right call.

     

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  • Take Ownership for Engaging and Elevating our Students

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 8/21/2018

    Ownership graphic Welcome back for another great school year!  We are so excited to welcome our students on Monday, August 27 and look forward to what lies ahead.  As we prepare to launch into this year and continue building upon our focus, understanding and application of our COCOA Principles, we will center on our Ownership “O” this year.  We will be building upon the importance of relationships, looking for opportunities to grow and enhance our community and OWNING our role - both personally and as members of the school community - to do our part in creating an exceptional learning environment where all students are engaged and elevated.  We will work together, communicate well, respect differences and honor each other to create a place where people know they are truly heard, respected and valued.

    For our students, we want you to OWN your role in coming to school eager and ready to give your best to learn, grow, explore and take risks (which sometimes will cause failure), learn from all mistakes and failures and be an engaged, active members of our DTSD family.  We encourage and challenge you to discover your passions and talents, explore ideas with an inquisitive mind, challenge yourself and use your gifts and talents for the betterment of our school community, the larger community and our world.  Be the change you wish to see in the world and own your role in it.

    To more clearly define what “Ownership” looks like and to guide our thinking this year, we are sharing the following “7 Characteristics of Ownership”:

    • Being personally engaged
      • Am I personally engaged in our mission, vision and values?
    • Being trustworthy
      • Am I holding myself accountable as a member of the DTSD community?
    • Being Open-Minded
      • Am I managing the tension triggered by new ideas, innovation and change?
    • Practicing Healthy Communication
      • Am I actively embracing healthy communication patterns?
    • Being Supportive
      • Am I protecting the unity and community of DTSD?
    • Practicing a Servant Attitude
      • Am I modeling a servant attitude while serving others?
    • Seeking Constant Improvement
      • Am I modeling a “lifelong learner” mindset?

    We are an incredible community, both inside and outside our school walls!  We all have roles and responsibilities to our students.  I encourage all of us to reflect upon our individual and collective roles in modeling and living out these ownership characteristics.  Whether we have the role of student, teacher, staff, administrator, parent, community member, board member or neighbor, let’s join together and “own it” this year!

    There are many exciting adventures awaiting all of us.  Let’s look to those as opportunities to learn and grow.  Let’s commit to supporting one another, encouraging one another and spurring one another on to growth and learning! 

    As your Superintendent, it is my privilege and honor to be a part of your lives and be a Hershey Trojan!  We are in for a great year together and I look forward to welcoming everyone back for the 2018-2019 school year! 

     

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  • Strengthening our Community Through Transitions

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 5/4/2018

    Bridge Day 2018graphic I am excited to share with you some news regarding our continued efforts to build upon the many activities and events we have to help our students as they transition from elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school.  As many of us remember, these times are filled with great excitement - but sometimes great anxiety as well.  What will it be like?  Will I know where to go?  What to do?  How do I manage a locker?  What if I get lost?  Will I know anyone?  And the list of questions goes on and on! 

    For years, we have had students visit their new buildings, talk with counselors and teachers who provide them with an overview of what it will be like.  In eighth grade, we have had great programs through GOLD and STAR where high schoolers mentor the eighth graders and engage in a variety of events for those students.  As a district team, we looked for ways to build upon these opportunities and enhance them to strengthen the connection and sense of community among the students and staff.

    To help make the journey smoother and to build a stronger school community, we’re excited to offer “Bridge Day” – a voluntary half-day of “school” prior to the official first day of the school year.  The inaugural Bridge Day will be Wednesday, August 22, 2018! 
     
    Rising Sixth and Ninth Grade students are invited to school at their regular start time (7:37 a.m.) to spend a morning building relationships with their new teachers & classmates, running through their day in a “mini-schedule”, and learning about all the exciting things in store as they launch into their middle/high school experiences. There will even be time for participants to master those all-important tasks, like finding and accessing your locker! Bus transportation will be provided and all students will receive a free continental breakfast that morning.  Students will be dismissed at 10:10 a.m. 

    We strongly encourage all rising sixth and ninth graders to take advantage of this opportunity!  You will NOT want to miss out!   Be watching for more information through social media, the district website, your child’s backpack and other correspondence. 

     

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  • A Community Approach To Well Being and Safety

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 2/21/2018

    Although 2018 is barely two months old, this year is proving to be a very trying one for our nation.  Across the country, senseless acts of violence have created fear, frustration, a sense of loss and anger.  These feelings can be magnified when such acts are threatened against – or take place at - schools.  You entrust us with your children every day; please know the safety of students and staff will always be our single highest priority.

    We routinely review and revise our Incident Response Plan based on guidance from local, state and federal law enforcement.  We regularly review and practice safety drills with students.  We have many supports and services for our students who may be experiencing barriers to their learning and well-being. 

    However, the underlying societal issues that seem to have fractured our country cannot be solved by schools alone.  So I am writing today asking for your assistance in some very specific ways:

    • Monitor your child(ren)’s social media accounts.  Sadly, the highly publicized violence in Florida has more recently been followed by vaguely worded threats and/or rumors at schools closer to our area.
    • Report suspicious behaviors to the proper authorities immediately and encourage your children to do the same.  Emphasize that it is OK to seek help for themselves or others.  In fact, doing so aids the entire community in becoming more safe and secure.
    • Talk with your children about civility, respect and appropriate discourse. Acknowledge that we live in a society with many deeply held and diverse viewpoints which can sometimes be at odds.   At school, we strive to teach students to respectfully disagree when voicing their opinions and values.
    • Model the type of behavior we expect of our children.  Be civil.  Verbal attacks (in person or online) only polarize; respectful and appropriate discourse can help reduce feelings of anger and isolation that can lead to violence.

    Conversations like the ones I am asking you to have at home can be challenging for us as parents.  To assist, I am linking to several documents from the American Psychological Association and National Association of School Psychologists.  Please also know that we have staff who are dedicated to supporting you and your family and we also have access to other resources that may be useful to you.  Please let us know how we may be of assistance. As a community, it is imperative that we work together to ensure the well-being and safety of all.

    arrow  Related Links:

         Talking to your children about recent school shootings

         In the aftermath of a shooting - Help your children manage distress

          How to talk to children about difficult news

         Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

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  • Building Stronger “Communities”

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 2/2/2018

    February: middle of the winter…Groundhog Day… Valentine’s Day… Black History Month and Presidents’ Day.  Some of us love it and others just want it to end so we can move closer to spring and warmer, sunnier weather!  But, there are a lot of wonderful things going on in DTSD and we don’t want you to miss them!

    Kindergarten Registration graphic First, just a reminder for parents of the Class of 2031 (yes, that is next year’s Kindergarten class!).  Pre-registration is now open so don’t delay, pre-register online today! While starting kindergarten is always an exhilarating time for both students and parents, this coming year is exceptionally exciting for us!  The Class of 2031 will be our first class to have the opportunity to attend full-day!  This will give every student the opportunity to build stronger relationships with his/her peers and teachers, participate in specials, deepen learning and enjoy times of structured and unstructured play.  We are working tirelessly to get all the details in place and can’t wait to welcome our newest learners and school community members in August 2018.

    Java with Joe graphic Additionally, as Superintendent, one of my goals is to provide multiple opportunities to develop strong working relationships with all members of our community; both inside and outside the school.  To that end, one of those opportunities are quarterly Java with Joe meetings.  These informal times are a chance to sit, enjoy some “java”, learn more about the district and just dialogue about any topic on the minds of those who attend.  The next Java with Joe will be held on Friday, February 9 from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. in the middle school LGI.  No registration is needed and all are welcome to attend.

    Guiding Good Choices graphic Next, as a community, we all care deeply about the healthy development of our children.  And, as parents, there is no greater desire or responsibility than to help, raise and guide our children to learn and make good, responsible choices as they navigate childhood and teen years on their way to healthy adulthood.  As we all know, there is no user’s manual that comes with our children when they are born that tell us how to specifically help them navigate their growing years and making good choices.  But, our district, in partnership with a few dedicated parent volunteers are offering a FREE workshop series called Guiding Good Choices

    Guiding Good Choices is an interactive program for all parents. In a lively and open atmosphere, parents will learn specific strategies to help their children avoid drug use and other adolescent problem behaviors, and develop into healthy adults. Parents and guardians will learn to set clear family guidelines on drugs, as well as learn and practice skills to strengthen family bonds, help their children develop healthy behaviors, and increase children’s involvement in the family.  Learn more and register on the district web site.

    So, as you can see, many exciting things are happening this month as we continue to build, develop and enhance our “community”!  Now, come on spring!

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  • The Snow Woes: Making the Call

    Posted by Joe McFarland on 12/11/2017

    Snow Woe graphic In many ways, being superintendent of Derry Township School District has been a blessing and I usually absolutely love the opportunity to lead this tremendous district.  Except one thing that always creeps into the picture this time of year.   Let me explain why.

    You see, I love snow.  Well, I used to.  But now that I am superintendent, anytime I see snow in the forecast, I get a little shiver – and not just because it’s cold outside.  The fact of the matter is that weather-related delays and cancellations calls OR the decision to proceed as normal are some of the most difficult decisions school administrators make. They are certainly the most second guessed.  We usually get it right.  But sometimes, hindsight suggests otherwise.  I’m the first to admit it’s an inexact exercise, but it’s also far from just making a wild guess.  I’ve shared the decision-making process in the past and this seems like a good time of year to review it again.

    Let’s start with the understanding that the safety of our students and staff is always our first consideration.  We are also very much aware of the impact schedule changes can have on child care, parent/guardian work schedules and even state mandated education requirements. But if we are going to err, we will always lean toward protecting safety over all other considerations.

    At DTSD, we make decisions by relying on forecast models, recommendations from emergency management personnel, reports from our Transportation Department staff and the township road crews and we consult with other local school districts.  After careful and thoughtful review, the district then makes what we believe to be the best decision based on the information it has available at the time.

    We often have to make decisions BEFORE a weather system arrives. Any change to the usual schedule involves an inherent operational time lag.  Buses need drivers and drivers need time to report to the bus garage, prepare their vehicles and then travel out to the first stop on their routes.  And then, of course, there’s the time it takes for buses to complete the route.  As a practical matter, “go/no go” decisions” must be made 2-2:30 hours PRIOR to the normal opening bell.   Even with the best predictors, however, conditions can change quickly and in ways not forecast or foreseen. So we are in constant communication so that, if need be, we can change our original plans in the best interest of safety. 

    Who knows what Old Man Winter will throw our way, this year.  But rest assured that whatever comes our way, we’ll do my best to make the right call.

     

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