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In re Petition of Gateway School District To Approve Arming of School Police Officers Pursuant To 24 P.S. Section 7-778, Et Seq.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

February 15, 2017

In Re: Petition of The Gateway School District to Approve The Arming of School Police Officers Pursuant to 24 P.S. Section 7-778, et seq.

          Submitted: January 13, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE JULIA K. HEARTHWAY, Judge HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Senior Judge

          OPINION

          DAN PELLEGRINI, Senior Judge

         This is an appeal by the Gateway School District (School District) from a decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) denying its petition seeking permission to employ armed school police officers purportedly as required by Section 778 of the Pennsylvania School Code (School Code).[1] Because, under that provision, the trial court had no discretion to determine whether a school district should implement a program to employ armed school police officers but only to determine whether individuals the School District proposes to hire have the requisite training and possess the character to serve, relief that the School District did not seek, we vacate the trial court's order.

         On June 21, 2016, the School District enacted a Resolution directing its Solicitor to present a petition with the trial court for approval to "designate school police officers . . . [and] authorizing the arming of School Police Officers with . . . the power to arrest, issue citations for summary offenses, and/or detain students until arrival of local law enforcement pursuant to the Pennsylvania School Code, specifically 24 P.S. §7-778." (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 9a.)

         In accordance with the Resolution, the School District Solicitor filed a "Petition to Approve the Arming of School Police Officers pursuant to 24 P.S. 7-778, et seq." with the trial court. (R.R. at 2a.) The School District requested the trial court to issue an order allowing:

6. Gateway School District seeks to arm all future School Police Officers based upon the extensive training received in accordance with 24 P.S. §7-778 as well as the Pennsylvania State Police Academy.
7. Gateway School District also desires that such School Police Officers have the power to arrest, issue citations for summary offenses and/or detain students until the arrival of local law enforcement in accordance with 24 P.S. §7-778[.]

(R.R. at 2a-3a.) No approval was sought for specific individuals to be hired as school police officers. On August 21, 2016, a hearing was held on the petition.

         At that hearing, school board member Mary Beth Cirucci (Cirucci), the board member behind the creation of the school police force, testified that before the Resolution was enacted, a committee of school board members was created to examine whether the School District should employ police officers. She testified that the committee consulted with Human Resource Manager Patricia Crump (Crump) and two retired police officers, Bryan Key (Key) and Jonathan Pawlowski (Pawlowski), who were both ultimately hired by the School District. She also contacted other school districts that had hired police officers to determine what advantages and disadvantages there were to having School District police.

         Cirucci also testified that there are already two police officers in the School District from Monroeville Borough, but the current proposed program would be more expansive and save the $75, 000 per police officer now being paid to Monroeville. She explained that only those who were honorably retired from other municipal or state police work with a minimum of 25 years of service would be hired. She believed that this requirement would relieve the School District of providing health insurance coverage for these officers.[2] (R.R. at 100a-102a.)

         Another school board member, Chad Stubenbort, testified that police officers were needed in the School District's schools to insure the safety of its students, teachers and staff in order to respond to horrific events such as those that occurred at Sandy Hook and in a neighboring school district.

          Key and Pawlowski each testified that all applicants receive the required training set forth in Section 778(b.1) of the School Code, 24 P.S. §7-778(b.1). Pawlowski also testified about a support program for this kind of project referred to as ALICE - an acronym for a federal program providing a 40-hour module of specialized training for school police officers. Pawlowski had not taken that program but intended to and to use it to train other officers who would be hired.[3]

         On September 16, 2016, the School District sought expedited consideration because it "believes that it is imperative that a decision be made without much further delay as the safety of its students are of the Petitioner's utmost concern and it is their [sic] belief that this proposed police force would not only provide for another layer of defense and protection but may deter or prevent potential catastrophic attacks at their [sic] schools." (R.R. at 141a-142a.)

         To that request for expedited consideration, the School District attached a proposed order that reiterated the relief it requested in its original petition requiring the School District make annual reports to the Department of Education as well as implementing policies regarding the responsibilities of its school police officers.[4] It also, for first time, identified 11 individuals who the school board had approved as school police officers. It did not seek trial court approval nor were they mentioned at the hearing.

         The trial court denied the petition. While recognizing that school districts have the right to create their own police force, it found that the implementation of that authorization is given over to the judiciary. It went on to explain that it denied the petition because more thought was needed as to whether a school police force should be created, as well as what type of training is needed for school police officers who would be armed. The trial court also stated its concern that once this police force is approved and put into place, it can never be disbanded except by extraordinary efforts by succeeding school boards, and that it had not seen any evidence that the existing police forces serving the School District are not up to the task. It also lamented that the Department of Education failed to offer proper guidance on the issue and that it believed "broad police powers would clothe these new private police with super discipline powers in the school . . . ." (R.R. at 152a.) It also took exception to the fact that the School District did not involve an educator, mental health professional, school psychologist or child development specialist in deciding to create a school police force. It also expressed concern that students would steal guns from the School Police as a prank. Finally, the trial court found that more study was needed to determine whether giving full police power to what it characterized as independent private police is a good idea because it can lead to abuses, stating:

[T]he politically charged atmosphere surrounding this issue leads me to conclude that these private police may be used to further particular School Board goals and desires beyond child safety. In the event of a labor dispute between the School District and any of its collective bargaining units, picket lines would be a sharp focus of these private ...

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