The problem with forcing schools to call the police
SB 56 mandates reporting of criminal offenses on campus by school administrators to both local police and to the state Department of Education's Office of Safe Schools. The primary sponsor has a school in his district that was calling the police for student incidents but not reporting those incidents to the Office of Safe Schools. By not reporting to the office, the school avoided being tagged as an unsafe school.
So it makes sense to put some guidelines in place to be sure that schools are not ducking the Office of Safe Schools. And, of course, all of us want some incidents reported to the police. If a homicide occurs in a school, I'm pretty sure that everyone wants the school to call the cops.
But once you get past the obvious, things get murkier the further you go down the list of offenses. Here's an example that is nearly identical to a real incident. Say a teacher who doesn't understand autism touches a kid who is on the spectrum. Kids with autism don't like to be touched. The kid reacts by kicking the teacher in the leg. The act itself is simple assault, but because the victim is a school employee, it's aggravated assault.
Under SB 56, school administrators have discretion on whether or not to call the police on simple assault but must call the police for aggravated assault, under threat of a fine of several thousand dollars. So if this bill becomes law, that kid gets hauled off by the police, and it doesn't matter if he's 7 or 17. Think for a moment about just how traumatic it would be for a child, any child, to be taken from school in handcuffs.
With administrators having the discretion to report simple assault but being mandated to call the police for aggravated assault, school administrators will be left to determine where particular offenses fit in the criminal code. Third degree institutional vandalism must be reported to the police, under SB 56, but lesser forms of vandalism do not. If you're an administrator and you have a $2500 fine hanging over your head, you're probably going to err on the side of caution and report all forms of vandalism and all forms of assault. Why risk money coming out of your pocket or your school district's pocket?
A problem already exists with schools relying too heavily on police back up to deal with discipline problems. In the 2006-07 school year, law enforcement in Pennsylvania found just 60 percent of incidents reported by schools to be arrest worthy. In other words, police considered 40 percent of the school-based complaints they received to be unworthy of their attention. Schools are calling the police too much, and that's without SB 56 in law.
Ironically, one of the issues coming out of the inter-branch commission on juvenile justice has been that there were too many school-based calls going into police stations in Luzerne County. The excessive use of law enforcement by school officials funneled kids into the juvenile justice system, where two Luzerne judges allegedly took bribes to send kids to detention facilities.
We don't know the future of this legislation. It passed the Senate last year. It has not yet been taken up by the House, but it's possible that there will be a massive (omnibus) bill related to school issues. SB 56 could be in it. It's hard to imagine the Pennsylvania General Assembly doing any worse by our kids.
Andy in Harrisburg