Pa. lawmakers seek fix to return arrest powers to school police officers
Officials say the lack of arrest powers causes delays in response in schools and communities
HARRISBURG, Pa. — When state lawmakers return to session on Monday, they will begin work on correcting a mistake they made last summer that stripped school police officers of their longheld arrest powers.
The House Education Committee will consider legislation on Monday to address this unintended consequence of a school safety measure that Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law on July 2. Bi-partisan-backed legislation also is being proposed in the Senate to address the matter as well.
Central Dauphin School District is one of the 80 districts in Pennsylvania with a school police department. Its director of safety and security Gabriel Olivera said he would like to have the arrest powers returned.
“It causes an inconvenience for us because now we have to wait for available officers [from the community] to respond and then it’s an inconvenience for the officers from the local jurisdiction because they now have to handle something we normally would handle,” Olivera said.
In 2017-18, Central Dauphin reported 222 incidents involving law enforcement, resulting in 22 arrests. The bulk of those were handled by the district’s police officers, he said.
Already this school year, he said a theft occurred in a school building that one of his department’s three officers investigated. They were able to identify and detain the individual who stole the item. But then they had to wait for the local police to arrive to make the arrest. Now, when the case goes to court, he said both the school and local police officers have to appear because of the law that was passed this summer.
Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin County, who is offering the legislation that the education committee will consider on Monday, said officials at Chambersburg Area School District reached out to him about the matter as did others from around the state.
“Those fully trained police officers, employed by a governmental entity, should retain arrest powers, as they have in the past. This legislation would appropriately rectify this situation,” he said.
Interestingly, the law that created this unintended consequence was a fix to a prior school safety law, Act 44, passed in 2018.
After that law known as Act 44 passed, Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland/York counties, heard from school districts who complained that it failed to allow sheriffs and deputy sheriffs to serve as school resource officers. That was followed by complaints about the Department of Education’s interpretation of Act 44 barring security guards from carrying firearms.
He authored the legislation that addressed both of those issues but in the process, removed arrest powers that lawmakers are now looking to restore.
What caused that unintended consequence, Regan’s staffer Erin Marsicano said is they were trying to address a concern raised by the Fraternal Order of Police about language that would have given arrest powers to third-party independent contractors hired to serve as police officers. Previously, that authority only rested with governmental employees.
At the time, she said they didn’t realize school districts with school police departments were actually making arrests and not relying on the state or local police to handle that.
Regan intends to try and fix it as does Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Allegheny County, who is proposing her own bill.
“School safety has been a top priority of mine since the first day I stepped foot in the Capitol,” Regan said. “We have had an ongoing dialogue with school police officers from across the commonwealth and it is our goal to restore powers so they can do their job of protecting children in school.”
Iovino acknowledged this unintended consequence has been a concern in a number of school districts in the western part of the state particularly in areas that rely on the state police for coverage. She is hoping for quick action to correct it.
“Addressing the safety of our schools should not be delayed,” she said.