School Resource Officers Not Entitled to Law Enforcement Disability Benefits
A recent Illinois Appellate Court decision addressed the question of whether School Resource Officers (“SROs”) employed by school districts are entitled to district-paid disability and health insurance benefits for “law enforcement officers” under the Public Employee Disability Act (“Disability Act”) and the Public Safety Employee Benefits Act (“Benefits Act”). The Appellate Court determined that not every person who has completed law enforcement training and suffers injury or death at work is eligible for benefits under the Acts. Rather, only entities with the power to employ law enforcement officers as law enforcement officers will be responsible for the payment of such benefits. Because schools generally lack such power, their SRO employees typically will not be covered. The decision will limit liability under the Acts for the few school districts that employ SROs directly as well as for school districts that employ any individual with law enforcement training in any position.
Stimeling v. Peoria Public School District 150 involved an SRO, Stimeling, who had served in many roles with the school district. He first was hired as a “security agent.” After completing police training and certification, he became a member of the district’s Public School Police Department. In 2011, however, the District changed Stimeling’s title from “security agent” to “school resource officer” and limited his authority to “arrest” students or issue citations. The following year, after the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board informed the District that SROs could no longer receive police training unless the District demonstrated a legal authority to maintain its own police department, the District disbanded its Police Department, conceding that it could not provide such legal support.
Meanwhile, during the 2011–2012 school year, Stimeling took medical leave from the district due to an injury he sustained at work. After Stimeling exhausted his leave, the District terminated his employment. Stimeling sued, alleging that SROs are “law enforcement officers” entitled to employer-funded benefits under the Disability Act and the Benefits Act.
The Appellate Court rejected Stimeling’s argument, noting that an “eligible employee” is defined in the laws as a law enforcement officer employed by an entity with the power to employ such officers. Because the school district conceded that it lacked authority to operate a police department or employ law enforcement officers, Stimeling did not qualify as an eligible employee. To find Stimeling eligible would unreasonably “make everyone who completes law enforcement training and suffers a catastrophic injury or is killed on the job eligible for Benefits Act benefits, regardless of the employer or job title.”
Based on this case, because school districts do not have authority to hire law enforcement officers, SROs employed by school districts are not eligible for benefits under the Disability Act or Benefits Act. This limits the potential liability school districts may face paying disability and health insurance benefits under the Acts when an SRO suffers an on the job injury while performing his duties. The case does not impact, however, any other disability or health insurance benefits to which an SRO may be eligible.