The Lead

After accidentally taking away school police officers’ arresting power, Pa. House committee advances bill to restore them

By: - October 21, 2019 5:00 pm

A bill that would reinstate arresting powers to school police officers in Pennsylvania got approval from a key state House committee on Monday, even though its members rejected an amendment that would have required the agents to complete regular cultural bias training. 

The House Education Committee voted unanimously to approve the bill introduced by Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, this summer, after the General Assembly inadvertently stripped school police officers of their power to perform arrests on school grounds.

The legislation will now go to the full House for consideration. 

Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, proposed an amendment that would have required school police officers to complete regular training to combat cultural bias and discourage use-of-force tactics in schools. 

Miller said he offered the amendment in hopes of curbing school arrests in Pennsylvania, which federal data show disproportionately affect black and disabled students. 

“I have no issue with with law enforcement in schools if that’s what the local districts want,” Miller told the Capital-Star. “[But] in this country, we are not treating everybody equally. And schools, unfortunately, tend to reflect that.”

The committee’s Republican majority reacted coolly to the amendment, saying the training Miller proposed would duplicate topics already covered in officers’ state-mandated instruction.

“I think that your amendment was really searching for a problem,” committee Chairman Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, said, shortly before the amendment failed on party lines. 

Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a bill requiring all school police officers and security officials to complete a 40-hour training administered by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

That course is designed to help officers “build positive relationships with both students and staff,” according to the association’s website, and includes guidance on policing diverse student bodies. 

But according to Miller, Pennsylvania could do more to ensure that school discipline does not disproportionately affect minority students.

“My belief is that in some aspects, we’re not doing a good enough job in helping our law enforcement across the board when they’re in schools,” Miller told the committee on Monday.  “This is an opportunity for us to raise the bar.”

The proposal Miller offered mirrors one he outlined in a bill introduced in January, which has languished in the House Education Committee. 

The former attorney has sponsored other legislation to reform policing practices, including bills that would require more stringent reporting of use-of-force incidents and limit a force’s ability to purchase military equipment.

Miller’s Allegheny County district neighbors the city of Pittsburgh, where protests erupted in early 2019 after a white police officer was acquitted in the 2018 shooting death of Antwon Rose II, an unarmed black teenager. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.