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TASD solicitor ‘scaring’ board

Parent contests notion that district could be held liable in debate over masks

The Tyrone Area School Board solicitor was accused of scaring the board into abiding by the Wolf administration’s mask mandate during the public input portion of the board’s Tuesday work session.

“I don’t know how you would possibly advise them that they could be liable for willful misconduct when they have sovereign immunity as a school district and there has never been a liable case ever that has come against the school,” said district parent Tracey Stroup.

Stroup accused the solicitor of terrorizing and scaring the board by telling them that they would be personally liable if a student contracted COVID-19.

“I think that’s terrible to say because they’re not,” Stroup said at the meeting.

In an email this week to the Mirror, Tyrone superintendent Leslie Estep said that the board continually seeks clarification on the state laws.

“Obviously, we don’t know exactly what would happen in any given situation,” Estep said. “However, we have been provided with several pieces of documentation that are clear that this mandate is an order and that there are potential consequences for districts that fail to follow it.”

In her email, Estep in­­cluded a frequently asked questions document from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that outlined what could happen to school officials who fail to adhere to the masking order.

The document states that failing to implement or follow the control measures may expose individuals to personal liability under Title 42 Section 8550 (relating to willful misconduct), as well as other remedies as provided by law. According to the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955, failure to implement and follow the control measures under the order also subjects a person to penalty provisions.

Estep noted that the fines accrued from these penalties would be a waste of funds that could be spent in more important areas. She also said that the district’s insurance carriers have also advised the board that coverage could potentially be jeopardized by willfully violating a government order.

“We are not arguing that some of the policies and procedures that we have been ordered to follow have been contradictory and sometimes do not make sense,” Estep said. “This causes a great deal of frustration from the school district standpoint also. However, when an order is set forth, we do not have the authority to change it.”

Elizabeth Benjamin, solicitor for the Tyrone Area School Board, provided a statement from her firm, Beard Legal Group, regarding the mask mandate. The statement read, in part, that according to federal court, there is no basis or authority for a superintendent, solicitor or board of school directors to simply determine on their own that a disease prevention and control mandate issued by the Department of Health can be disregarded.

It goes on to say that the firm recognizes that there are a number of arguments in opposition to the mandate, but that those arguments would be best directed to those that issued the order and that any challenges to it must ultimately be decided by a Pennsylvania Court.

“The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act speaks for itself in providing that willful misconduct is an exception to immunity protections,” Benjamin said, citing legislation that states actions under Subchapter C for claims against a local agency may be brought in and only in a county in which the local agency is located or in which the cause of action arose or where a transaction or occurrence took place out of which the cause of action arose, according to the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Kate Coltabaugh, a parent who has a child with immune deficiency attending a Tyrone school, addressed the board to express her support for the mask mandate.

“You have the duty to work for all children,” Coltabaugh said. “Not just the healthy children.”

The school board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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