Given the recent surge of violence in schools, parents are looking to know more about the safety measures and precautions being taken within the schools their children are attending. However, schools are more hesitant to release information regarding security measures and plans due to the potential for misuse of that information. A new Pennsylvania law allows school administrators to keep such critical information private to protect an individual or the safety of the school in general.
Senate Bill 1078 protects certain sensitive information, including information pertaining to emergency preparedness plans, from being accessed under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act. Also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, the Right to Know Law grants the public access to public records of state governmental bodies. Prior to the law’s establishment in 2008, anyone wanting access to government records had to prove they should be open to the public. After the law’s passage, government documents were presumed to be open to the public unless the government agency could prove that they should be kept private.
Senate Bill 1078 was unanimously passed by the Senate in April and it has now also been passed by the House. The law will allow school officials to discuss school safety measures during executive session out of the public eye if disclosing them publicly would likely impair the effectiveness of those measures or would jeopardize the safety of an individual or the school.
School officials will now be able to discuss security measures in private without worrying about exposure under sunshine laws. The Northampton Area School District Superintendent stated that the days of printing and posting school building floor plans are over. Now, officials must be careful about the information they disclose because students and faculty may be put at risk should the information get into the wrong hands.
The main sponsor of the bill points to the West Nickel Mines school shooting of 2006 as the catalyst for the bill. During that incident, eight girls were shot and killed in an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County. When another district received estimates for security upgrades and a resident requested information pertaining to the designated locations of cameras and lockdown doors, it raised safety concerns amongst the school board.
The representative for several school districts in Lehigh Valley says that the law makes sense given the current state of affairs. By keeping security measures secret, the locations of cameras or emergency exit locations, for example, cannot be calculated into malevolent plans. Some information, such as how tax dollars are spent when it comes to security measures, implementing safety plans, and hiring security staff may still be open for public discussion. However, placement of security equipment and other emergency preparedness details can now be discussed in private to protect the safety of the school.
The potential for misuse of sensitive information has increased but so has the potential for abuse of the new law. For now, school boards will have discretion whether to discuss security matters in executive session or to disclose such information to the public.
For more information about your legal rights and obligations regarding school security or any other education law matter, contact the education law attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser by calling 484-318-7106 or submit an online contact form.