Indicative of the increased attention being given to school safety and security nationwide, on June 22, 2018, Governor Wolf signed into law two legislative bills amending the Public School Code of 1949, House Bill 1448 and Senate Bill 1142. These amendments include an extension of the authority of school boards to hold executive sessions when discussing sensitive security issues, and require that schools appoint a safety and security coordinator and provide training for staff on school safety.
Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act authorizes public boards to hold executive sessions under certain limited circumstances. This amendment to the Public School Code arising from HB 1448, expands the circumstances under which a school may hold an executive session to include discussions related to school safety.
Now, in addition to reasons provided under the Sunshine Act, a school entity may hold an executive session to “plan, review or discuss matters related to school safety, the disclosure of which if conducted in public, would: (1) be reasonably likely to impair the effectiveness of such measures; or (2) create a reasonable likelihood of jeopardizing the safety or security of an individual or a school, including a building, public utility, resource, infrastructure, facility or information storage system”.
“School entity” includes the school districts, intermediate units, joint schools, vo-techs, charter schools, regional charter schools and cyber charter schools. Official action on discussions held in executive session must still be taken at an open meeting.
The amendments further incorporate language mirroring that found in the Sunshine Act and provide that an executive session may be held during an open meeting, at the conclusion of an open meeting, or may be announced for a future time. The reason for holding an executive session must be announced at the open meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session. If the executive session is not announced for a specific time in the future, members of the agency must be notified 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specifying the date, time, location and purpose of the executive session.
It is also important to remind public boards that, outside of executive sessions, information gathering sessions are legally permissible. In Smith v. Township of Richmond, 623 Pa. 209 (2013), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concluded that closed-door meetings held between a public board and outside entities did not violate the Sunshine Act when they were held for informational purposes and where they do not involve deliberations.
On the issue of school safety, HB 1448 also increases the number of school security drills that may be conducted in place of fire drills, from one to two.
Other Security and School Safety Related Amendments
The Governor also recently signed SB 1142 into law. Similar to HB 1448, SB 1142 amends the Public School Code to address school safety and security issues.
At the state level, this legislation calls for the creation of a School Safety and Security Committee acting under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Safe2Say Program.
The School Safety and Security Committee is charged with conducting school security assessments and working cooperatively with schools to enhance safety and security. It is also responsible for distribution of grant money to schools to support safety efforts, including, for example, conflict resolution/dispute management, school-wide positive behavior support, school-based diversion programs, training programs, and peer helper programs. Schools may apply once a year for this grant money.
The Safe2Say Program a state-operated program for students, teachers, and community members to anonymously report behavior perceived to be “threatening to an individual or school entity”.
On a local level, this legislation also includes amendments that require immediate action from school administrators. The chief school administrator is required to appoint a school administrator as the safety and security coordinator by August 31, 2018. This administrator shall oversee school resource officers, security guards and/or school police and shall take a lead role in reviewing policies and procedures related to school safety to ensure compliance with the law, as well as coordinating safety/security assessments and training.
School safety and security training is also now required for all employees in areas such as suicide and bullying awareness, substance use awareness, and emergency training drills. This training may be provided on-line or “other distance communication” systems. Employees must complete a minimum of three hours of training every five years and may receive continuing professional education credit if the training program has been approved by PDE in consultation with the newly- formed School Safety and Security Committee.
Bottom Line for Schools
This amendment clears up the uncertainty public schools shared over whether to and how to legally justify executive sessions on school safety issues that common sense mandated not be shared publicly.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have taken an important step to ensure that schools have the ability to engage in these discussions in a manner that will not sabotage their efforts to ensure student safety. However, public school boards must remain vigilant to conduct executive and information sessions in strict accordance with Pennsylvania Law. As this requires a fact specific analysis of the circumstances involved, before engaging in closed-door sessions public school boards should consult with a KingSpry education law attorney or their local solicitor.
This School Law Bullet is a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund is our editor. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.