There was a time when school safety protocol wasn’t so secret.
Northampton Area School District Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik, a school administrator for the last 20 years, recalls when building floor plans were printed in handbooks and posted on school websites.
Those days, he said, are long gone.
Ever since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, school districts have disclosed less and less about their security measures and plans.
“And rightfully so,” Kovalchick said. “This is the world we live in. There’s no comparing it to years ago.”
Yet as security information has become more confidential, the desire by parents to know more about what’s happening inside a school has grown.
This has created a new balancing act for administrators, Kovalchick said.
School administrators have new clarity about what they can and can’t discuss in public thanks to a Pennsylvania law signed June 22.
The law allows school officials to discuss matters related to safety behind closed doors — in executive session— if airing them publicly would be “reasonably likely to impair the effectiveness of such measures” or are likely to jeopardize the safety or security of an individual or school.
The law requires officials to say the reason they’re holding the executive session.
While school officials continue to try to beef up security and deal with threats, the new law codifies something that attorney John Freund, who represents several school districts in the Lehigh Valley including Easton, has long advised his clients.
“I look at this new law as clarifying what I think was a common sense application of the existing law,” he said. “It also gives school boards more confidence that they can talk about the issues of school safety without being concerned about there being violations of sunshine laws.”
Media advocates said they understand the necessity of allowing districts to keep students safe, but that the law could open the door to abuses by public officials.
“Any time you label something national security or security measure or something, it’s such a broad sort of category, we’ve seen a lot of abuse over the years with schools or other government agencies to say we’re not going to talk about this….and that’s sort of the end of the discussions,” said Mike Hiestand, a senior legal consultant with the Student Press Law Center.
He said openness about school security can lead to more secure schools. He said there was an instance where Colorado student journalists found out their security officer was being shared with another school and wasn’t actually on campus for a good chunk of time. They were able to push back and the policy was changed, Hiestand said.
“Having the public involved and having there be some oversight is always going to be more preferable to having everything done in secret,” Hiestand said.
Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the language of the law should be narrowly construed and applied.
Discussion about whether to create a school security officer would not take place in executive session, she said, but discussion about a report that reveals holes in safety and security that exist within the school could be, she said.
“Elected officials, school boards need to walk that line very carefully and recognize the purpose of the exception and the purpose of the Sunshine Act the their responsibilities to the people they serve,” she said “This is not a carte blanche to discuss everything that’s related to security during executive sessions.”
Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County) was the main sponsor of the legislation that also delays the use of Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement until the 2020-21 school year and adds conditions for school district contracts with third parties for non-instructional services.
Cutler said the school security language on executive session was one he’s supported for about a decade.
He said the issue came to his attention after the West Nickel Mines school shooting in 2006, in which eight girls were shot, five killed in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County.
In the wake of the shooting, a district in Chester County received estimates for security upgrades, and a resident who thought the bids were too high asked to see where the cameras and lockdown doors would be, Cutler said.
“It brought up concerns for members of the school board because when you lay out plans like that somebody could actually bypass the security measures you have in place,” Cutler said.
He said the bill balances maintaining safety and public accountability, and said the parameters in the bill should keep it from being abused; school boards have to meet the standards and publicly announce the reason for holding the executive session.
In the Parkland School District, most security discussions already took place behind closed doors, Superintendent Richard Snisack said.
“We always erred on the side of the safety for students and staff,” Snisack said.
But the new law provides a sense of surety moving forward, according to the superintendent.
Easton Area School Board President George Chando called the bill “outstanding.”
“I just think it’s better for the aspects of school safety and security that it gets talked about in executive session first,” he said. He said school board might ask consultants or other experts to talk about school security, providing a level of scrutiny.
He also noted that the school board on Wednesday considered adding a safety and security standing committee, which would help disseminate information that everybody should know.
Freund, the solicitor, said he views paying bills for security measures, having a safety plan and hiring new security staff as appropriate for public discussion.
But other items such as the capabilities and placement of equipment, where professionals would be assigned to respond to an emergency and other details, could stay in executive session.
“It’s not a good idea to let the bad guys know where the laser beams are,” Freund said.
He said he previously advised districts they could discuss sensitive security matters in executive session under a confidentiality exemption in the state’s open meetings law.
He noted the law leaves the decision to the discretion of boards.
Kovalchik doubts that the law would deal a significant blow to public transparency. District administrators, school board members and attorneys are well practiced in discussing spending tax dollars in public, he said.