Pa. lawmakers accidentally took away school police officers’ ability to make arrests

Pa. State Police SUV (Pa. State Police Facebook Page

Amid a flurry of legislative activity in June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill creating new training requirements for security officers and other armed personnel who patrol Pennsylvania’s schools.

The only problem, according to lawmakers and local officials? 

The bill mistakenly stripped school police officers — licensed law enforcement professionals who are employed by at least 80 districts across the state — of their power to arrest anyone.

They say that change only became clear in August, as educators and security personnel were preparing for the start of a new school year. 

“The school police came to me and asked, ‘Does this say what we think it says?’” Snyder County District Attorney Mike Piecuch said. “It was very surprising … We had no heads up.”

Lawmakers who were instrumental in the legislation say they didn’t intend to strip school police officers of their arrest power.

The goal of the bill that Wolf signed in June was to increase training requirements for school security personnel. Lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police also wanted to ensure that school police officers hired by private, third-party contractors wouldn’t be able to perform arrests, they said. 

But that simple change in the bill’s language made all the difference. 

“It was a confusing chain of events,” Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, said of the process leading up to the bill’s passage in June.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency noted the change in a joint letter sent to school districts in August. 

Rep. Rob Kauffman, the Franklin County Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, announced plans to “correct [the] mistake” in a memo he circulated to colleagues on Sept. 10. The bill was referred to the Education Committee on Sept. 26.

“During our late-June rush of legislation, an important bill relating to school safety was enacted into law,” Kauffman wrote in the memo. “While this bill took major strides in keeping our students safe, one slight change in language mistakenly stripped arrest authority from fully trained career police officers employed by our school districts.”

Eighty districts across Pennsylvania employed a combined 617 school police officers during the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent state data.

More than half of all the state’s school police officers work in the Philadelphia school district, which did not respond to the Capital-Star’s request for comment.

But Piecuch said that the legislative oversight threatens to undermine school security operations across the commonwealth. 

“A lot of planning went in to get these school police departments off the ground,” Piecuch said. “From a school’s perspective, if you are investing in a police infrastructure that doesn’t have any police powers, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Black, disabled students face arrests at higher rate

State law currently authorizes three classes of security professionals to patrol schools. 

They include school resource officers, who are police officers from a local force assigned full-time to a school building; school police officers, who are employed directly by a school; and school security guards, who are employed by schools or private contractors and provide routine security in school buildings.

All three types of security personnel can carry firearms if they complete training requirements. 

But only school police officers can petition Commonwealth Court judges to obtain power to make arrests on school grounds.

School security guards were the most common type of security personnel during the 2017-18 school year, state data shows.

The state’s 500 school districts employed 957 security officers that year. It’s too early to tell if their ranks grew after the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., which led Pennsylvania lawmakers to create a $40 million school safety grant program to fund school security equipment and personnel.

The Education Law Center in Philadelphia says the growing presence of police and security guards on school campuses only harms disadvantaged students.

“Harsher security measures lead to criminalization of young people and put students of color and students with disabilities at particular risk for behaviors that cannot be effectively addressed with purely punitive approaches,” the group’s policy director, Reynelle Brown Staley, said in an emailed statement. “Truly creating safe school communities means attending to students’ physical, emotional, and psychological safety.”

Pennsylvania’s school-related arrests and discipline rates far outpace national averages, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

More than 4,500 arrests took place in Pennsylvania’s public schools in 2013. Black students were more likely than any other racial group to face school-related arrests, while disabled students in Pennsylvania were affected at a higher rate than their able-bodied peers.

Harold Jordan, a school safety expert with the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn’t think that lessening the powers of school police officers will protect many students from the criminal justice system.

Jordan said schools that don’t employ police officers can still refer students to local law enforcement agencies. That was the case in the Kids for Cash scandal that rocked Luzerne County a decade ago, when two judges were sent to prison for accepting lucrative kickbacks for referring juveniles to for-profit detention centers. 

None of the schools whose students were caught up in the scandal employed police officers, Jordan said. But all had administrators who aggressively “used law enforcement and the court system to punish kids.”

“Whether school district police officers have arresting authority or not is not the central issue,” Jordan said. “‘Who should be arresting children?’ is the wrong question.”

Capital-Star Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story. It was updated to accurately reflect Harold Jordan’s remarks.

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