A security officer monitors students as they transition between classes during the first day of school at South Philadelphia High School Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Philadelphia. About 190,000 students are going back to class Monday in Philadelphia, where parents say severe staffing cuts have created an aura of uncertainty around the new academic year. Officials contend the school district is prepared despite the major budget reductions.
I cover state government and basic and higher education policy. Reach me at JMurphy@pennlive.com or at 717-255-4106 or 717-255-4106.
Northern York School District’s Superintendent Eric Eshbach absolutely hates everything about having armed school security personnel walk the halls of the middle and high schools.
Yet, in the wake of last year’s Parkland school shooting, Eshbach has come to terms with having hired private armed security officers in his district’s schools, saying it gives him peace of mind knowing he has done everything possible to keep kids safe.
That contentment, however, got shaken when he and other superintendents around the state received a letter from the state Department of Education in February with its interpretation of Act 44, a school safety and security law, enacted last June.
The letter essentially said contracted school security guards are not permitted to possess a firearm on the job.
Immediately, Eshbach reached out to his state Sen. Mike Regan, and said, “Can you help me?”
A couple hours before the shots rang out in that suburban Denver school that left one student dead and eight others wounded, Regan, R-Cumberland/York counties, sat before the Senate Education Committee to talk about Senate Bill 621.
He said it would fix the problem that confronted Eshbach and officials in other districts had surrounding the issue of armed officers in schools and the education department’s interpretation of Act 44.
“School districts found themselves questioning whether or not they were following the law,” Regan told the committee. “This bill clarifies some uncertainty in interpretations surrounding the individuals allowed to carry a firearm within their official duties as a school security provider.”
Regan went on to say that he met with globally recognized experts in the field of school safety and asked what one thing they’d do to make a school safer.
“Like clockwork, all of them responded with this: Put an armed vetted trained school security officer on the ground,” Regan said.
He succeeded in getting the committee to approve his bill by a 9-0 vote. It would allow school security personnel who have training in school-based law enforcement to carry firearms in schools, which resolves Northern York’s issue. The bill recognizes training by the National Association of School Resource Officers, or a state-approved equivalent.
Regan’s bill further clarifies, among other things, that active trained sheriffs or sheriff deputies could be used as school resource officers. That part of his bill addresses a problem Big Spring School District officials encountered.
That western Cumberland County school district has an arrangement with the county sheriff’s department to provide an armed school resource officer at the high school. District Superintendent Richard Fry said the district wanted to bring a second resource officer on board to be stationed at the middle school but found that made county officials uneasy.
The way Act 44 is worded it specified that school resource officers had to have a type of training that the county officers didn’t possess, but Regan’s bill “makes it good to go for us if it moves forward,” Fry said.
For Regan, the latest shooting at the Colorado school reemphasized the urgency and need to fine-tune the laws and refocus efforts to making sure Pennsylvania students are safe at school.
In the meantime, Fry said Big Spring is continuing on with its plan to work with the county sheriff’s department to provide a second school resource officer to be stationed at its middle school.
And Northern York is keeping its contracted armed school security officers from G-Force Investigations on the job after securing a letter from York County District Attorney Dave Sunday saying he is comfortable with the district’s decision and that it fits under his interpretation of the law.
“So we didn’t change anything throughout the course of the year,” Eshbach said. “I get a lot of comments from community members saying thank you.”
Still, he added: “I absolutely hate the fact that we even have to have this conversation. I mean I absolutely hate the fact that this is even a topic of discussion.”