The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 19, 2013

School safety targeted Measure would boost spending by 1,900%

Measure would boost spending by 1,900%

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — A measure that would provide as much as $10 million in new grant dollars, including funding to help compensate local governments for placing police officers in schools, has been approved by a House education committee.

If the budget includes the full $10 million, it will increase state spending on school safety in Pennsylvania by 1,900 percent.

The bill was authored by Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson. The full Senate voted 49-0 to approve Scarnati’s bill earlier this spring.

Last year, Pennsylvania divided just under $500,000 in safe school grants  between 37 of the commonwealth’s 500 school districts. Those grants were supposed to be used for things such as anti-bullying efforts and district-wide safety planning.

In 2011-12, almost half of the school districts in Pennsylvania had school security officers or police officers stationed in schools, according to data provided by the state Department of Education. But many of those school districts deployed school security officers rather than fully trained police officers, government data show.

The districts and local governments that provided the police had to absorb the cost. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency used to help pay for police in schools, but the commission cut off funding in 2009, a spokesman said.

Scarnati’s bill, crafted in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, would provide as much as $4 million to offer more of the existing grants to more schools. The remainder of the money in the program would be funneled to municipalities to help them pay for police officers who would be stationed in schools.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, sits on the education committee, which approved the bill, 23-0.

Longietti said that the funding for the school resource officers would most likely be made year-to-year.

But since the police officers would be members of the municipal forces, they could be assigned other duties if the state funding were to dry up, he said.

Longietti said he supported the bill because it’s completely voluntary.  

The legislation would simply provide the funding and then allow local officials to decide whether they want a law enforcement presence in school.

That has civil libertarians worried.

“Putting money out there for it will inevitably attract the interest of more schools, like bugs to a light,” said Andrew Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania.

The ACLU objects to the bill because there is research showing that minority students and students with disabilities are more likely to come into contact with school-based police than their white or nondisabled classmates, Hoover said.

Longietti said that because the prime sponsor of the bill is Scarnati, a member of the Republican leadership in the Senate, it would not be surprising if the grant program gets funding in the budget. But first, the bill must be voted on by the full the House.

A spokesman for Scarnati said the senator remains optimistic that the House will approve the bill before the end of the June session so that the dollars will be able to put police in schools come fall.

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