Senate Bills 93 (home-school student access) and 383 (firearms on school grounds)

The Honorable Anthony Williams
Senate of Pennsylvania
Re: Senate Education Committee

Dear Senator,

On behalf of the 4,500 elected officials who govern the commonwealth’s public school districts, we are writing to regarding legislation scheduled for the Senate Education Committee on April 19, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.

Senate Bill 93: PSBA supports the education of all students in Pennsylvania no matter what education avenue they choose.  The language inserted into Section 502 of the School Code would allow home-educated students to dual enroll in services and classes that traditional public schools provide.  Providing home-educated students with dual enrolment is a controversial issue for school districts for several reasons which this legislation fails to address.  At this time PSBA is opposed to this legislation for the following reasons:

First, Senate Bill 93 circumvents the authority of local school boards to determine what is in the best interests of their local communities. Pennsylvania is a strong local control state and this bill undermines that principle – this type of choice should be an option for school districts to choose and build community support for. The Pennsylvania public school system is not considered an “a la carte” system where parents and students, who choose not to participate in the public education system, can still reap the advantages of public school students. To change this situation there is a need for guidance, authority, procedure, and funding to be built into this legislation.  This is not as simple as allowing access to class, but it is a difficult as allowing access to a secure building with rules, producers, and guidelines that need to be developed to make this proposal a success.

Second, school districts do not receive additional aid for providing services to home-educated students, and the language within Section 52 opens the door further for other students. Requiring school districts to allow home-educated students access to dual enrollment could stretch the already thin school budgets if districts need to expand the services and increase budget allocations for staff, curriculum and material.

To this end we propose working with the prime sponsor and the education staff to develop a thorough proposal that meets the future needs of education in Pennsylvania.  A workgroup of interested parties should certainly be involved to properly develop this complicated legislation.

Senate Bill 383: We wish to thank Senator White, the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 383 and this Committee for their commitment to enhancing school security and the protection of pupils. School security is of huge importance to PSBA and our member school systems. Over the years PSBA and partner insurance companies have focused considerable effort upon educating school boards and educators. PSBA and our insurance partners have worked with our members on everything from the dimensions of the safety and security risks they face to  the legal ramifications, resources, practical challenges and other important considerations they should be aware of as they decide what combination of strategies to use, and assisting them in assessing both the threats and their security measures.

We continue to seek and develop legislative approaches for eliminating obstacles to effective security programs, such as amending the Sunshine Act to permit school boards to use executive sessions to discuss security measures and crisis response plans that could compromised if discussed in the open. We also work to educate and update local school solicitors about the numerous legal considerations that come into play in connection with various security measures.

Senate Bill 383 adds to the security options available to local school boards by making the authority of a school board to permit trained school personnel access to firearms on school property broader and more explicit. PSBA acknowledges that there are great differences of opinion about whether increasing the presence of firearms in schools is a wise or effective approach for enhancing school security. That is not a debate in which it is necessary or productive for PSBA to take a position, and it would be difficult for PSBA to take a position on Senate Bill 383 without being perceived as jumping into that other debate. That being said, the boards of school directors represented by PSBA generally prefers to have more options available to them, not fewer options, and it is our understanding that the kind of authority Senate Bill 383 would provide is something some school boards would like to be able to consider. PSBA also commends the simple and straightforward approach taken by Senate Bill 383, which relies primarily on reference to established accreditation programs while leaving related details and procedures a matter for local policy and procedures.

The more appropriate role for PSBA on this issue will be in assisting school boards in determining whether the options Senate Bill 383 would offer are right for their communities, and helping them to ensure that all the necessary associated measures are taken, tailored to local needs.

School Districts would need to consider what options already exist that permit an armed security presence in school, such as school police officers, school resource officers and juvenile probation officers. They would need to consider whether access control measures, physical security barriers and available non-lethal means can provide sufficient security without introducing additional firearms and firearms carriers into the learning environment.  Once a decision to go forward is made, school officials would need to develop or adapt policies and procedures to determine how any such firearms would be secured, what “access” will mean, and under what circumstances such access will or will not be permitted. Crisis response plans and training for school staff and students will need to be modified to recognize that additional school staff may be armed and having new and special responsibilities in an active shooter situation. They will need to consider what tactical training and regular battle drills are needed in addition to weapons proficiency for those designated to be part of an armed response. They will need to review and update their memoranda of understanding with local law enforcement agencies to reflect that some school staff in addition to sworn law enforcement personnel may be armed and ensure that the identities and roles of those additional staff are carefully coordinated with police. They also will need to review liability and property/casualty insurance coverage to ensure that specific coverage exists or can be obtained for the unique risks that are entailed.

PSBA wants to address a question that should arise regarding the interplay among Pennsylvania’s Crimes Code provision prohibiting the possession of weapons on school property, the related provision of our Public School Code, and the parallel provision of the federal crimes code generally Gun Free School Zones Act.

It helps to remember that the School Code provision addressing the possession of weapons on school property, 24 P.S. §1317.2, applies only to students, and operates mainly as a requirement for a minimum level of punishment for possession of a weapon. Thus, it is Section 912 of Pennsylvania’s Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 912, that restricts possession of weapons by school staff, by making it a crime for adults as well as students to possess weapons on school property, with specified exceptions. Although the two provisions use language that is similar in some respects and different in others, they are not in conflict due to their different purposes. Both however apply to the possession of “weapons”, which both broadly define to include knives and other things in addition to guns, whereas the federal crimes code provision prohibits possession of “firearms” in school zones, but does not address other types of weapons. As with the Pennsylvania Crimes Code provision, the federal law also has exceptions to its applicability for specified situations.   PSBA believes that at least three of those exceptions would mean that the federal law should not be an obstacle to implementing what Senate Bill 383 would permit. For example, under one exception the federal law does not apply to possession by persons who are licensed under Pennsylvania law to carry concealed weapons, as Senate Bill 282 would require.

I appreciate your time and attention to these issues and look forward to working with you in the future.  If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at (717) 506-2450 x3337.

Sincerely,

John M Callahan, PSBA Assistant Executive Director for Public Policy/Chief Lobbyist