Schools don’t have to release gun alerts
State: Districts not required to tell public when students bring weapon on campus
When a student brings a weapon to school, the law doesn’t require the public to be alerted.
Pennsylvania’s Act 26 of 1995 established the Office of Safe Schools within the Department of Education and sets forth reporting requirements for incidents of violence and weapons possession.
That’s the law that Altoona Area School District followed June 22, when a student buried a handgun in bushes outside of the high school during a summer school session.
There was only one classroom used in the high school B building that day, and parents of all the students who were there were called after the incident transpired, Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said.
The entire community didn’t learn about the situation until a version of the events, which Prijatelj said was incorrect, turned up two months later as support for a separate bullying lawsuit filed by the estate of Wyatt Lansberry in federal court by attorney Steven Passarello.
Nonetheless, Prijatelj said he would not have done anything differently in notifying or not notifying the community about the gun incident.
“My job is not to incite a riot over a situation that was handled,” Prijatelj said.
The student was charged by school district police and expelled from the district. No lockdown message or other emergency message was sent to the entire community of 1,800 high school students’ families.
And it may have been handled the same way anywhere else in the county or the state.
The state’s Office of Safe Schools established by Act 26 advises school districts on developing policies regarding possession of weapons and protocols for reporting to law enforcement officials and the Department of Education.
Schools are required to fill out forms developed by the office, including circumstances surrounding the incident, as well as type of weapon.
The state’s Safe School website makes some of that information public, but not immediately and not completely. It lists how many incidents happen in a year and what kind, but it leaves out details and context.
For example, in 2016-17 — the most recent school year that information is available — there were three possessions of different kinds of guns and one possession of an “explosive” in Blair County schools.
At Tyrone Area in 2016-17, a student possessed a rifle or shotgun; an Altoona Area student possessed a BB gun; at Spring Cove there was a possession of an “explosive” and a possession of an “other firearm.”
The Safe Schools website does not make it obvious what specific kinds of explosives, perhaps fireworks, are included.
Tyrone Area Superintendent Cathy Harlow stated the public is not notified at the time of an incident.
“We do not notify the public when a student is found in possession of a weapon on school campus. We follow our safety procedures, board policy and deal with the situation through student discipline and, if necessary, law enforcement based on the circumstances,” Harlow stated in an email.
Spring Cove Superintendent Betsy Baker echoed Harlow’s comments.
“Student discipline issues are confidential; however, if a situation presents a concern for student safety, the applicable student or students and their parents or guardians would be notified. Student safety is always priority,” Baker said.
Does Pennsylvania’s Act 26 say anything about notifying the public when a student is found in possession of a weapon?
“It does not,” said attorney Carl Beard, who serves as solicitor for many area school districts. “School districts must provide (Pennsylvania Department of Education) each year a summary of offenses by category with no other anecdotal information surrounding the event due to FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).”
The FERPA act of 1974 is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.
However, it is legal to report incidents under that act to the extent reports do not reveal identifying information concerning the student.
Greater Johnstown School District officials did not release information about a student arrested in 2015, but it did say for the local news that a student was arrested for having a handgun on campus and that no students were in danger because the student had the gun in response to events outside of school. A custodian found the loaded gun in an open backpack at night.
WJAC reported at the time that rumors were circulating when the student was arrested before school the next morning. A WJAC reporter stated that, after all the incidents that morning, officials realized rumors and misinformation were getting out and they wanted to assure parents that their children were never in harm’s way.
Safe School annual reports show it was the only gun possessed by a student in Cambria County from 2013-14 to 2016-17.
Lawsuit highlights incident
In contrast to the Johnstown case where rumors circulated immediately, the rumor mill evidently wasn’t running about what happened at Altoona Area on June 22. The first public account of what happened came out two months after the incident, in an unrelated lawsuit that includes a witness statement from an unnamed student that a peer threatened the student with a gun outside the high school and later inside a classroom with a teacher absent. According to the court filing, that spurred the witness to evacuate other students from the room.
When the teacher returned, the student in possession of the gun allegedly passed off the weapon to another student, who ran outside and hid it in the bushes, the lawsuit states.
Prijatelj said that the lawsuit is inaccurate. He maintains the gun was buried in the bushes from the start and was never brought inside the building.
“Everybody who dropped their kids off for summer school knew what happened,” Prijatelj said. “It wasn’t the second semester of school with 1,800 kids. If I told the whole community, it would have fed people’s desire for sensationalism.”
And while tragic school shootings intermittently rouse lawmakers nationwide to make changes for school safety, one thing that the area’s public school district solicitor doesn’t foresee changing is how weapon possessions on campus must be reported to the public.
“I don’t know if the law is ever going to change,” Beard said.
There are too many scenarios, for example, when police may need to conduct an investigation, and alerting the community to an incident may compromise it, Beard said.
“So I don’t foresee legislators saying ‘every time there is a gun incident, everyone needs to know about it,'” Beard said. “There are too many dynamics at play.”
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.