School district practices for getting armed personnel on site once seemed like the Wild West, with each district interpreting the requirements in its own way. But on February 22, 2019, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (PDE) rode into town and laid down the law when it issued a very brief Act 44 Update.
The PDE update supports what some school districts were doing while telling others they must change.
Previously, many school districts had fulfilled their security needs by employing security guards and arming those of them that had received training under Act 235. That is a 1974 law whose regulations provide for lethal weapons training offered by the State Police. In fairness, these regulations could be read to support a school arming security guards who had gone through that training.
But no one – neither PDE nor the State Police – were ever clear on whether that was sufficient.
There were also a couple of other paths to having armed personnel in PA’s schools prior to Act 44. One was a provision allowed for appointing a School Police Officer or SPO. Act 44 took that existing section and moved it to a new area within the Safe Schools Act (a part of the School Code). Act 44 also added a provisions in that new area explicitly permitting the existing practice of stationing local police in a school – School Resource Officers or SROs.
PDE noted in its Update that Act 44 explicitly provided for arming the School Police Officers but not the also permitted security guards. The municipal police have that same authority a different law.
The update makes clear that now – before anyone straps on a holster – that person must be either an SRO (contracted local or State police) or a judge-approved SPO with prior police officer training.
Securing judicial approval for an SPO requires a petition to the court and sometimes a hearing. Note that a court can approve an SPO who does not have prior police training, but that individual will not be allowed to carry a firearm.
For this and other related issues, Fox Rothschild’s Education Practice group is experienced in preparing and filing such petitions and can assist as needed.
So will the armed security guards ever “ride again”?
The Pennsylvania courts have consistently held that a state agency – such as PDE – charged with upholding a particular law is entitled to considerable deference in its interpretations of that law. Such deference is not unlimited, however, and the courts will overrule an agency where its interpretation is wrong.
At least one group has set its aim on other language in Act 44 that it claims would allow arming security guards. So stay tuned and maybe it or some other white hat will throw down the gauntlet. In the meantime, we recommend that school districts follow the Act 44 Update and not utilize armed security guards for their safety and security needs.
Instead, we suggest that if a District sees the need for armed security in its buildings throughout the day, it should either contract with local police for an SRO, or obtain court approval to appoint a SPO.
Those that currently employ armed security guards should immediately begin transitioning them to SPOs if they qualify.