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Franklin Regional school board questioned for discussing safety issues in private

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, June 6, 2018, 5:40 p.m.

At a time when school security is a nationwide topic and some five dozen threats have been made locally since the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in February, a former Franklin Regional school board member believes the current school board is holding too many security discussions behind closed doors.

“You've gotten no input from the public about this,” said Dick Kearns of Murrysville, former school board president, about the board's recent vote to begin establishing an internal police force. “You deliberated about it privately, you come out and announce that you're going to establish a police force, and we're going to have to pay for it.”

The board voted unanimously in late May to petition the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas, with the goal of creating a three-person department consisting of an officer, a supervisor in charge and an assistant supervisor in charge.

Getting court permission is the first step, and there is no fixed timeline for starting such a force or a full financial picture yet for what it could cost, school district spokeswoman Cara Zanella said.

Kearns at this week's board meeting cited an excerpt from the state's Sunshine Act, which lays out the eligible topics for an executive session. He accused the board of violating the law by discussing security in private.

Creating a police force was not listed on the board's May committee-of-the-whole agenda — where items slated for action at a later voting meeting are typically announced and discussed publicly. The topic was added to the May 21 agenda during the meeting.

School board solicitor Gary Matta told Kearns he believed the board had acted properly.

“If you believe we have acted outside of the law, do what you feel is necessary,” Matta said. “But what I'm saying is that this board is acting for the safety of the children in this district.”

Matta did not return several calls seeking comment.

In making the customary executive-session announcement prior to recent meetings, school board President Dr. Larry Borland has cited “security” among items to be discussed.

Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the state Sunshine Act does not include an exemption for security.

“But even if there was a security exemption, it should not apply to a discussion about whether to create a new staff security position within the school system,” Melewsky said. “School security officers operate in the open and are highly visible, with good reason.”

She said the creation of a new staff position “is one that must be addressed in public, with an opportunity for the public to weigh in before the decision is made.”

If a county judge grants the district's petition to empower and create a police force, subsequent discussion about specific candidates for those positions could be held during an executive session, Melewsky said.

Pending state legislation would add security to the list of topics eligible for an executive session. The bill introduced by Sen. Joe Scarnati passed the state Senate unanimously in April and is in the House State Government committee.

Many schools in Pennsylvania are looking for ways to better protect those in their care, including identifying potential weaknesses in their current safety plans, Scarnati said. Making those plans public, he said, could compromise school safety efforts and put students in harm's way. He added that more than half of U.S. states have laws allowing security and safety matters to be discussed in executive session.

Since February, around 60 threats have been made against schools, students or teachers in southwest Pennsylvania. At least 14 juveniles across the region, ages 12 to 17, face terroristic threats charges in connection with investigations into those cases.

In 2014, Alex Hribal attacked fellow Franklin Regional High School students with kitchen knives, injuring 21 people. He was sentenced this year to serve up to 60 years in prison.

School board member Gregg Neavin said the board has discussed various options with regard to its security plan. He did not elaborate.

“There are details that you just don't share,” he said. “This one came up and was added (to the May 21 agenda) as new business because of the process that we need to go through.”

With no July meeting, Neavin said, board officials had “certain marks to hit” in order to potentially have an internal police force in place for the start of the 2018-19 school year.

“With this kind of issue, I would hate like heck to be in a Monday-morning quarterback position,” he said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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