A new state law that sets the parameters for armed and unarmed school security personnel is not generating much discussion in local school districts to update their own policies.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in early July signed the Republican-backed Senate Bill 621 into law as Act 67 of 2019, amending Act 44 of 2018 which established a new state school safety commission and school security grant program. Act 67 lays out the training and qualifications for school safety officers, school resource officers and school security guards, all of whom may carry a firearm. A district may contract security personnel out to a third-party vendor that may also be qualified to carry a firearm.

The law does not mandate armed personnel for districts, but it is still gives the option to the districts if they wish to have any armed security personnel, be it a retired police officer or a security guard.

Garnet Valley will swear in a school district director of safety and security on Aug. 13 and will be the only armed officer in the district. His responsibilities, and those of district security guards, were formalized in district Policy 705.1 that was revised in late June days before Wolf was presented with SB 621 to be signed. Garnet Valley Superintendent Marc Bertrando said this policy change was a product of Act 44, “along with the myriad school safety issues” throughout the country and not for eventually signing of SB 621 into law.

“As a district we were discussing hiring a director of safety and security for a couple of years, but Act 44 reengaged the discussion and ultimately quickened our timeline,” wrote Bertrando in a late July email. He added that the district will retain five security guards as it had for the previous school year.

Of the other districts reached for comment, officials for William Penn, Southeast Delco and Chichester school districts said they would not be immediately changing their respective school polices under Act 67. William Penn spokeswoman Pamela Bookman said the district has no contract with municipal police departments for a school resource officer, but the district has unarmed school security officers.

“At this time, William Penn School District is not reviewing security policies to include armed officers,” she wrote in an email.

Southeast Delco and Chichester each have two school resource officers that are police officers contracted through their local police departments. Southeast Delco Superintendent Stephen Butz and Chichester Superintendent Dan Nerelli both said they are not looking to further change their security policies at this time.

“We’re good with the school resource officers and everything we’ve put together overtime that there isn’t much new we need to look at,” said Nerelli in a July 30 phone call.

In Springfield, police Sgt. Michael Vaughan serves as the district’s security administrator and is the only security personnel and armed personnel in the district according to district spokeswoman Melissa Butler. The district is not looking to outsource more security into the district as Act 67 would allow.

Arming personnel in Upper Darby School District was a hot button issue last fall when the school board considered adopting a policy to permit armed security. That policy was ready for a second and final reading in October but was pulled from the agenda and is expected to be revisited in the fall. The policy may go through a potentially more rigorous adoption process that will include board and public conversation at its first reading and, if necessary, more conversation before its second reading as the board starts to restructure its policy adoption practices, according to district Superintendent Dan McGarry.

Arming any security personnel is still a big no for some education advocacy groups.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about the prospect of arming school personnel,” said Education Law Center-PA Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “We don’t think that makes safe schools.”

She continued, “We have lots of concerns about having these vendors, private security firms in our schools. The truth is that in many situations, like Parkland and Columbine, you had armed school security and that doesn’t stop these horrific incidents. Instead, you are now having many more incidents not where somebody with a gun is stopping a terrible incident like Parkland, but, rather, many incidents where you have a school security guard with a gun who is not de-escalating situations, not making schools safer.”

On that point, Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland said at a June Safe Schools Summit hosted by Neumann University that the county is blessed with law enforcement that has shown to be “dedicated to doing their job, and doing they’re job very well.”

“They’ve consistently shown that they’re willing to expound their boundaries and take full advantage of every learning opportunity and training opportunity,” she said.

Under Act 67, there is no standard for what weapons training any proposed armed personnel may possess, but every school security officer, resource officer and security guard is expected to go through the Basic School Resource Officer Course of Instruction offered by the National Association of School Resource Officers, or an equivalent, within six months of the bill’s effective date (early September). The course lasts for 40 hours and covers sixteen topics related to school safety. The cost per person is $495, and Senate Bill 621 provides no funding to districts to acquire such training.

Money for education is continuing debate in the commonwealth. School security is just the latest piece of that discussion. As cash-strapped school districts try to retain staffing levels as they are (including counselors and mental health resources) school security is just another cost for districts to work with.

The state’s school safety and security grant program awarded approximately $52 million in grants in the last school year in an open, meritorious Part A program, and a competitive Part B program where individual awards can be as much as $6 million.

Chichester received funds under Part A, but not in the competitive Part B program.

“Part B is a shame that we have to compete for school security. We should get money accordingly,” said Nerelli. “If security is a priority, we shouldn’t have to compete for it.”

Security is a competitive part of the education spectrum as basic education funding is, as seen in the William Penn School District-led lawsuit arguing that the state is not holding up its constitutional duty to a fair education because of its funding inequities.

The state Legislature going about establishing money for security instead of resources like informed trauma care, mental health staff and guidance counselors, and other gun-less preventive alternatives was not a surprise to Klehr.

“Districts are making really difficult decisions about staffing and access to support services to our students, but the answer is not to increase the presence of guns in schools,” she said. “We hope that school districts use state dollars in the name of school safety for things that will actually make schools safer, like guidance counselors, not armed security personnel.”

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