Church Security Awareness Month
October is Church Safety and Security Month, a great time to make sure that your church or other religious institution is adequately protected.
Churches used to stay open around the clock. But the violent events of recent history have changed that tradition. Now, churches must be safeguarded against shooters, robbers, and other criminals.
Here are some tips for keeping your church safe during October and throughout the year.
Church Security Measures
The first step in keeping your congregation safe is to conduct a church security assessment, to identify potential threats, and develop plans of action. Be sure to know your local neighborhood, so you can identify potential issues.
Here are some things to consider when developing a security plan:
Church access: If there are many entrances to the church, consider having only one open during business hours, and securing the additional entrances with heavy doors, locks, and security windows.
Implementing a procedure for giving out and collecting keys to the church may be helpful in preventing former staff or members from having easy access to the church and any valuables inside.
Also, be sure to lock up valuables such as microphones, televisions, and computer equipment, to protect against theft.
Dangerous property conditions: If your church is having repairs or remodeling done, be sure that the proper warning signs are posted, and that work is completed in a reasonable amount of time.
Churches must expediently address known hazards and keep the premises reasonably safe for churchgoers and staff. If someone is injured on your property due to your negligence, they may file a premises liability lawsuit, which may subject you to responsibility for their injuries.
Armed security: Many churches do not want to have armed security on the premises. However, it may be wise to consider nowadays. There were 346 mass shootings in the United States in 2017 alone, according to the not-for-profit organization Gun Violence Archive.
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 95 percent of active shooters do not stop shooting until someone who is armed arrives. Uniformed, off-duty police officers, or others with training in law enforcement or the military, are often good choices when it comes to armed security guards.
Screening employees/volunteers: Churches are often at the center of allegations of abuse. It is important to develop a thorough screening process for all potential workers or volunteers.
Conduct background and reference checks on anyone who will be working with children, and implement a waiting period for new members. Also, have a policy in place that requires two unrelated adults to be present with children at all times. That way, children are never left alone with one staff member or volunteer.
Emergency preparedness: It is crucial to have emergency plans of action, in the event that your church is the target of a violent crime. Church members should be informed that there are security measures in place. Further, they should be advised on what to do if there is a crisis.
DHS recommends forming a collaborative planning team to address safety risks, determine goals and objectives, and implement and maintain emergency operations plans.
For more information on how to keep your church secure, contact The MacMain Law Group, LLC by filling out an online inquiry or calling us at 484-318-7106. From our office in West Chester, our experienced attorneys serve clients throughout Chester County and Philadelphia.
Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses
Sexual misconduct occurs on college campuses every day. Most recently, several faculty and staff at Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and Michigan State University have been accused of failing to protect their students from the sexual misconduct of coaches and campus physicians. While most universities have developed their own internal method for handling claims of sexual misconduct, there has been little federal guidance governing sexual misconduct on college campuses. This may soon change.
Handling of Sexual Misconduct Charges
Between 2011 and 2017, the U.S. Department of Education conducted over 450 Title IX investigations. In 2011, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education drafted a Dear Colleague letter, which addressed a perceived failure to protect victims of sexual assault on college campuses. Following the distribution of the Dear Colleague letter to over 4,000 colleges and universities, many schools amended their policies to be more victim-friendly. In some cases, school administrations followed the letter’s advisement to adopt a preponderance of evidence standard of proof, which is the lowest legal standard, requiring a jury find over a 50 percent likelihood of guilt against the accuser.
Proposed Changes in Sexual Harassment Policies
Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently announced proposed changes affecting the way many higher education institutions handle sexual misconduct complaints. Under the suggested federal rules, schools can adopt their own higher evidentiary standards and make it much more difficult for a victim of sexual harassment to prove his or her case.
Those accused of committing sexual misconduct would have greater procedural protections under the proposed changes, including the right to use mediation to resolve sexual misconduct claims. Previously, mediation of sexual misconduct claims was deemed by some to be too traumatic for the victims, who would be subjected to direct and cross examination by the alleged abuser.
The proposed regulations also adopt a narrow definition of sexual harassment as being unwelcome conduct based on sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity. Only when a school has actual knowledge of sexual misconduct would there be potential liability. Another significant change is that the college or university has no duty to investigate any incidents occurring off-campus, such as in fraternity houses, even if such incidents involve students.
Limiting the Liability of Colleges and Universities
The draft proposal would impose liability on higher education institutions only in those cases where a formal complaint of sexual misconduct has been filed against the school. This eliminates liability when a sexual assault victim only reports the incident to a dormitory residential advisor. A school would be liable for failure to respond to sexual misconduct only if the administration’s response is clearly unreasonable, considering known circumstances.
Critics believe the changes would make it more difficult for the victims of sexual harassment to prove their cases and easier for colleges and universities to avoid legal liability. Although there would be a public comment period regarding the proposed rules, the changes could go into effect without requiring a Congressional vote.
If your organization is facing sexual misconduct allegations, contact the experienced Pennsylvania education law lawyers at The MacMain Law Group LLC are ready to assist you. For more information, contact us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients from the surrounding areas.
The Importance of I-9 and H-1B Compliance
Today, especially under the Trump administration, there has been much focus on the legality of individuals residing in this country. As such, worksite audits and maintaining a legal work force are imperative. Each U.S. employer is subject to an audit of its workers’ employment eligibility. Due to this, it is important to ensure that each business is being compliant with its Form I-9.
Employers that are sponsoring H-1B workers for employment must have their Public Access Files (PAF) so that they may formulate an understanding of who is permitted to inspect them. It is imperative that businesses adhere to the laws surrounding worksite audits, investigations, and enforcement measures.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
Beginning in January 2017, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) was responsible for issuing penalties to businesses that did not adhere to these laws. Even simple mistakes, such as paperwork violations, can now cost companies anywhere between $16 and $2,126 per each employee’s I-9 form.
Federal law requires that employers verify the identities and eligibility of each person whom they hire. This information must be documented using the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9. The purpose of this is to deter illegal citizens from taking jobs within the country. I-9 audits are conducted via the following process:
- ICE/Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) serves an employer with a Notice of Inspection (Pending Audit).
- Employers must produce their I-9 forms and other necessary documents, such as payroll records, with three days of notice.
- HIS audit team reviews every form for technical or procedural violations and allows the employer 10 days to remedy.
Those employers who do not adhere to these laws will likely face civil fines if found during an I-9 inspection. Additionally, if these employers knowingly violate the law, they may even face criminal prosecution. All illegal employees that are found during this process, who are not allowed to stay in the country, are subject to arrest and removal from the U.S.
The H-1B Program
Under the H-1B program, the Department of Labor (DOL) must ensure that H-1B workers receive the wages promised to them on the Labor Condition Application (LCA). Employers must maintain a Public Access File with the correct documents to support that they attest and are compliant. The DOL may only initiate H-1B investigations under one of the following four reasons:
- It receives a complaint from an afflicted individual or organization.
- It receives specific credible information from a reliable source that the employer has not met certain LCA conditions, has engaged in a pattern that demonstrates failure to meet the conditions, or has committed a substantial failure to meet conditions that are applicable to multiple employees.
- DOL has found that the employer has committed a willful failure to meet a condition specified in the LCA or has willfully misrepresented a material fact in the same, over the last five years.
- DOL has reasonable cause to believe that the employer is not in compliance. If this is the case, the Secretary may certify an investigation.
The DOL may determine civil money penalties, among others, dependent upon the type and severity of the violation.
What Should Each Employer Do?
Each employer should make sure to designate who is responsible for dealing with immigration compliance and should review the current procedures, processes, and related documents. The immigration compliance team should also outline a plan if it ends up facing an audit and conduct periodic internal audits to ensure that all documents are correctly prepared. Employers should consider holding Human Resource training for those responsible for compliance.
If you or your company has been involved in any issues surrounding Form I-9 and H-1B Compliance, it is important to contact an attorney that knows what is at stake, what is expected, and how to help your organization. For more information, contact The MacMain Law Group LLC by filling out an online form or call us at 484-318-7106. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients from the surrounding areas.
Charter Schools vs Public Schools
A common misconception regarding charter schools is that they are not public schools. Individuals who are unfamiliar with charter schools may believe that because they are not affiliated with the public-school district in their community that they are private institutions. Charter schools are public institutions that reflect similar goals that public schools wish to achieve for students but with significant differences in their requirements, focus, and operation.
Rules and Regulations
Since charter schools design their own charters, which dictate how the school will be run, they may have more freedom and flexibility to cater to a specific student population. They may need to follow basic educational standards set out by the state to receive state funding, but most decisions for the charter school will be made by the board of trustees, who use guidelines drawn up by the school as reference.
Both charter and public schools cannot request students to pay tuition or discriminate against any student. Public schools may receive funding through local, state, or federal means from local taxes. Although charter schools rely on public funding, they can receive private funding as well. Public funding for charter schools, though, is made available on a per-pupil basis and may not be as plentiful as what public schools receive.
While public schools require specific certifications for teachers mandated by the state, charter schools may be more lenient in their qualifications for instructors. Depending on the state, charter schools may not require their teachers to possess any type of certification. Public schools require teachers to have proper certification as legislated by the state school board.
Students must apply to a charter school while public school students only need to enroll. If a specific number of spots exist at a charter school due to limited accommodations, applicants may be selected through a lottery system.
The state board of education creates strict standards and accountability measures that public schools must follow. Charter schools differ greatly because the fundamental purpose is to create their own rules and offer programs that support their vision. Class materials and curricula may be adjusted according to students’ needs, and the school may choose a theme such as the arts upon which to focus.
For information on ongoing legal matters involving charter schools or legal representation on education law issues, call The MacMain Law Group LLC at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. We are in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and we serve clients throughout the state.
State Prisons Step Up Safety to Protect Workers
Eighteen prison workers from three different correctional facilities in Pennsylvania were recently taken to the hospital for falling ill after contact with an unidentified toxic substance. Five incidents occurred over a two-week period earlier this month when workers came into close contact with prisoners’ belongings and through physical contact with inmates. The state is calling for improved security measures to protect prison staff.
Prison guards, nurses, and doctors experienced tingling sensations in their arms, fingers, and legs, as well as dizziness, increased heart rate, and headaches after coming into close contact with inmates’ belongings. Those affected encountered the substance during searches of prison cells, and through skin to skin contact during routine medical procedures.
Preventive Safety Measures
The substance is being analyzed, but it is believed to be a synthetic product that is being smuggled to inmates inside the prison. Prison officials are trying to prevent further instances by carefully inspecting inmate mail and scanning visitors entering the prison. Decontamination stations have been set up in some areas, and protective clothing and face masks, gloves, and protective eyewear are being used to prevent exposure to the substance.
Prison administrators are taking further action to train prison staff on how to recognize and handle suspicious substances, and how to properly dispose of contaminated equipment and clothing. The use of body scanners is also being implemented in prisons across the state. Prison officials for the state have acknowledged an increase in drug trafficking throughout Pennsylvania prisons, particularly in the western portion of the state. Physical assaults of prison staff by inmates has risen in recent months as drug trafficking has increased.
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recently announced that they are increasing efforts to protect the guards, medical personnel, and staff working in the state’s prison system. New violence prevention and response training programs, intelligence briefings, and police personnel have been added to many of the state’s prisons. Officials are hopeful that their efforts to increase security through education, training, and personnel support will decrease incidents of violence on prison staff.
Specific training programs and security measures will include:
- Use of personal protective equipment during searches and processing
- In-house fire, emergency response teams, and hazardous materials handling
- Increase in supplies of specialized gloves, respirators, and hazardous materials handling suits
- Specialized hazardous waste containers
- Increased use of body scanners
- Mail processing training programs
- Increasing K-9 teams for inspection
- Training on K-9 Narcan injectors
Attorneys at The MacMain Law Group LLC advise and counsel officials working to improve prison conditions. Call us today at 484-318-7106 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Our West Chester, Pennsylvania office serves clients across the state.
Offering Employee Benefits
Employers often struggle with the decision of whether to offer their employees benefits, such as health insurance, pensions, and paid time off. Providing these types of benefits is not required by law and many small businesses simply cannot afford to do so. However, employers who can offer benefits beyond those that are legally required stand to gain several significant rewards from doing so.
The Pros of Offering Employee Benefits
Attract more talent: Offering an enticing benefits package can attract more quality employees. When deciding where to work, 54 percent of millennials look to benefits as a deciding factor, according to a recent study. It is important to stay competitive with other employers who are offering increasingly generous employee benefits.
Retain loyal employees: Catering to your employees’ specific needs can help with employee retention. Employees are more likely to be loyal to a company that provides comprehensive, employee-tailored benefits. According to a recent survey, 40 percent of employees said they would turn down a higher salary offer to maintain their current level of health insurance coverage.
Increased productivity: When employees are happy, they perform better. One study concluded that happiness increased productivity by 12 percent. Another found that employees’ negative perceptions of work conditions, since the 2008 financial crisis, led to approximately $300 billion in lost productivity per year. Companies that have engaged employees are reportedly 22 percent more profitable than those with unengaged employees.
Reduced losses: Providing employees with quality health insurance plans can also reduce revenue losses due to sick days. According to a 2011 Gallup study, unhealthy employees cost companies around $153 billion each year, not including the losses that occur when employees are present at work but are less productive due to poor health. In addition to physical health problems, mental health and chronic conditions, like stress, also contribute to reduced employee productivity.
Monetary advantages: Employers can deduct health insurance, life insurance, pension plans, and other plan contributions when filing their taxes. Also, employers may be able to obtain personal benefits under the plan that are cheaper than obtaining them privately. Employees may be willing to accept a lower salary if they are presented with a higher-quality benefits package.
The Cons of Offering Employee Benefits
High cost: Providing benefits can be expensive, especially for small businesses. The costs of administration must be factored in, resulting in less choices for employers when designing benefits packages. As the cost of health insurance continues to rise, businesses may find it difficult to make financial plans in the upcoming years.
Legal exposure: Companies that offer benefits must comply with certain legal obligations as noncompliance or mistakes made in benefits plans can lead to legal liability, fees, and fines. This increased exposure under state and federal employment laws may dissuade employers from providing employee benefits.
For more information regarding employee benefits, contact an experienced Pennsylvania employment lawyer at The MacMain Law Group LLC by filling out an online inquiry form or call us today at 484-318-7106. From our office in West Chester, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Handling Medical Leave
Under Pennsylvania law, employers must follow the mandates of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by granting unpaid leave to employees for certain personal or family related reasons. The laws can become very complicated when FMLA requests are combined with laws governing the Americans With Disabilities Act and Workers’ Compensation laws. A qualified and experienced employment lawyer can help employers sift through this myriad array of laws.
FMLA Coverage and Approved Leave
An employer with 50 or more employees for a period of 20 consecutive weeks must comply with the federal FMLA laws. The FMLA provides unpaid leave to an employee for a period of 12 to 26 weeks each year and protects their benefits and position while they are away. There are certain restrictions that apply to this benefit that employers need to know.
- Employees must have worked for their employer for at least one year, and a minimum of 1,250 hours in the previous year.
- The employee must also work for an employer with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
- Family leave can be requested to bond with a new child, whether the child is born to or adopted by the employee.
- FMLA applies to employees recuperating from surgery or a health crisis, or to care for a family member with a serious health issue.
- Family leave can also be granted to an employee that experiences extenuating circumstances imposed by a family member’s military service, or to care for a family member that has been wounded while on active duty.
Employer Obligations Under FMLA
In Pennsylvania, eligible employees can be granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. The leave does not have to be consecutive. In other words, the employee may ask for six weeks leave to care for a new child, and then request another six weeks later in the year to care for an aging parent. Family leave can be extended from 12 to 26 weeks for an employee to care for a family member that was seriously injured while on active military duty. This type of leave cannot be extended or granted again unless the same family member or another family member is injured while actively serving in the armed forces.
Employers must continue health insurance benefits for the employee for the duration of their medical leave and at the same contribution rate. The eligible employee may also use their paid time off, vacation time, and sick days during the FMLA leave period. In certain instances, employers can require employees to use this pay during their medical leave.
Upon the termination of FMLA leave, employees have the right to be reinstated to the same position they held when they requested their leave of absence, or to an equivalent position within the company. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but an employer must prove that reinstating the employee to their former position would cause a hardship to the company.
The Pennsylvania employment lawyers at The MacMain Law Group LLC provide experienced counsel and representation to employers for a wide variety of employment issues. Call us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online to schedule a consultation today. Our West Chester office allows us to serve clients throughout Philadelphia and across the state of Pennsylvania.
Culture of Safety
Having a strong culture of safety is important for all workplaces, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A shared vision that is implemented through behavior, policy and enforcement can reduce workplace accidents and promote a safer work environment for everyone. A successful safety culture consists of many components, including leader and employee engagement.
It is important for those in leadership positions to set a good example. By showing that they take safety seriously, other individuals in the organization are more likely to do so as well. Upper management must make their commitment to workplace safety known so that other workers are encouraged to take a more active role in creating a safer work environment. Company leaders can show their commitment by taking the time to walk the floor, hold safety meetings and give feedback to workers.
Encourage Employees to Take an Active Role
The National Safety Council (NSC) notes that employee engagement is equally important to leadership commitment in creating a safety culture in the workplace. When each member of the organization takes an active role in their own safety, it helps to create a strong and effective safety culture. Employees have valuable first-hand knowledge of the risks associated with the job and how work practices can best be improved. They will be more likely to communicate such ideas if they are included in the process and encouraged to participate.
However, it is important to give the proper incentives when encouraging behavior-based safety. For example, employees should not be rewarded for going a certain period of time without any injuries or incidents because they may then avoid reporting incidents in order to receive the reward. Employees should also be able to report safety issues free from the fear of negative consequences; they should never be discouraged from reporting incidents or otherwise taking an active role in workplace safety. Instead, OSHA recommends building a culture of safety by:
- Defining safety policies and goals for each level of the organization
- Holding everyone accountable for being involved
- Providing employees with several options for reporting concerns
- Ensuring that supervisors are held accountable for taking reports seriously
- Training and educating employees on the importance of reporting accidents and near-misses
- Examining the incident investigation system to ensure that it is running effectively
- Keeping everyone informed and motivated about the ongoing process
- Celebrating success
The NSC also suggests encouraging employees to take an active role in their safety and the safety of others in the workplace. Some recommendations include:
- Providing employees with a suggestion box
- Holding meetings with all departments to discuss safety topics
- Creating safety committees and work groups to work on priority safety issues
- Conducting surveys to gauge employees’ stance on certain issues and taking action based on the findings
- Shutting down work after any major incidents to devote time to company-wide safety education
- Holding safety drills to encourage participation and teamwork
- Taking appropriate action when employees report hazards and incidents so they will continue to do so in the future
- Starting meetings with a safety talk to remind employees of both workplace and off-the-job safety issues
- Involving employees in safety activities in the workplace
New Bill Addresses School Security
Given the recent surge of violence in schools, parents are looking to know more about the safety measures and precautions being taken within the schools their children are attending. However, schools are more hesitant to release information regarding security measures and plans due to the potential for misuse of that information. A new Pennsylvania law allows school administrators to keep such critical information private to protect an individual or the safety of the school in general.
Senate Bill 1078 protects certain sensitive information, including information pertaining to emergency preparedness plans, from being accessed under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act. Also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, the Right to Know Law grants the public access to public records of state governmental bodies. Prior to the law’s establishment in 2008, anyone wanting access to government records had to prove they should be open to the public. After the law’s passage, government documents were presumed to be open to the public unless the government agency could prove that they should be kept private.
Senate Bill 1078 was unanimously passed by the Senate in April and it has now also been passed by the House. The law will allow school officials to discuss school safety measures during executive session out of the public eye if disclosing them publicly would likely impair the effectiveness of those measures or would jeopardize the safety of an individual or the school.
School officials will now be able to discuss security measures in private without worrying about exposure under sunshine laws. The Northampton Area School District Superintendent stated that the days of printing and posting school building floor plans are over. Now, officials must be careful about the information they disclose because students and faculty may be put at risk should the information get into the wrong hands.
Safety Bill Prompted by Tragedy
The main sponsor of the bill points to the West Nickel Mines school shooting of 2006 as the catalyst for the bill. During that incident, eight girls were shot and killed in an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County. When another district received estimates for security upgrades and a resident requested information pertaining to the designated locations of cameras and lockdown doors, it raised safety concerns amongst the school board.
The representative for several school districts in Lehigh Valley says that the law makes sense given the current state of affairs. By keeping security measures secret, the locations of cameras or emergency exit locations, for example, cannot be calculated into malevolent plans. Some information, such as how tax dollars are spent when it comes to security measures, implementing safety plans, and hiring security staff may still be open for public discussion. However, placement of security equipment and other emergency preparedness details can now be discussed in private to protect the safety of the school.
The potential for misuse of sensitive information has increased but so has the potential for abuse of the new law. For now, school boards will have discretion whether to discuss security matters in executive session or to disclose such information to the public.
For more information about your legal rights and obligations regarding school security or any other education law matter, contact the education law attorneys at The MacMain Law Group LLC by calling 484-318-7106 or submit an online contact form.
Running Background Checks on Church Volunteers
Gone are the days of “sacred immunity,” where churches and similar religious institutions were immune from legal liability. Over the last twenty years, the cultural and legal climate has changed, and churches are now a frequent target of litigation. Failure to conduct background checks is one of the top ten legal risks that churches face.
Sadly, many volunteers have criminal backgrounds and prey on churches that may be trusting and look the other way. Churches must be vigilant, because they serve vulnerable populations, including children and seniors, and handle cash that supports their mission and service work.
In Pennsylvania, background checks are mandatory for individuals who have direct volunteer contact with children.
Screening Volunteers for the Safety of Children
One of the most important duties a church has is to protect its children from harm. In recent years, the most common reason for churches to be involved in litigation was due to sexual misconduct of volunteers or church administrators.
Only adult volunteers who are responsible for the welfare of a child, and have direct contact with children, are required to obtain clearances. All volunteers are required to have a Report of Criminal History from the Pennsylvania State Police, and a Child Abuse History Clearance from the Department of Human Services.
If a prospective volunteer has lived out of the state of Pennsylvania in the last ten years, a federal (FBI) fingerprint based criminal history check, through the Pennsylvania State Police, is also required. Any volunteer who does not need to undergo federal fingerprint screening, because they have lived in Pennsylvania continuously for the last ten years, must affirm in writing that they are not disqualified from service based upon certain enumerated convictions.
You should consult competent legal counsel in determining as to which volunteers need to be screened.
Screening Volunteers to Avoid Financial Crimes and Embezzlement
Many churches have deacons, administrative assistants, accountants, and other volunteers who help collect and manage the church’s money. Without this, churches could not fulfill their missions.
Yet sadly, one out of every ten protestant churches have been victimized by embezzlers. Churches may screen volunteers who handle money for criminal records, work status validation, social media activity, education and licensing, credit report, and personal or professional references.
Sadly, running background checks may not be enough to protect your congregation. Many sex offenders are juveniles themselves, and thus are not subject to background check laws. Churches should always make sure that no child is ever left alone with a single adult. They also should ensure that any offices where money is stored or handled, or where children are located, are visible from the outside. For example, they should have windows or opened doors.
Contact The MacMain Law Group LLC by filling out an online inquiry or calling us at 484-318-7106. We go above and beyond, because we appreciate the many benefits that churches and other religious institutions bring to the communities that they serve. We bring our personal experiences serving religious organizations and non-profits to provide the specialized counsel that our local religious institutions need and deserve.