The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says new school safety legislation is “a major undermining of the public’s right to know.”
The companion bills, H-5941 and S-801, would require each school district to conduct school safety assessments with local police, fire, school safety team and any other experts needed, following a model plan established by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“The focus is looking at having the Department of Education provide school departments with model policies that focus on local development of school safety assessments, closer collaboration with our police departments and the schools, and making sure school safety policies are written in plain language,” said Representative Joseph McNamara, lead sponsor on both bills in the House.
The ACLU sees a problem with language in the bill that says safety plans would be adopted by schools in “executive sessions” [H-5941 page 1, line 15], and that documentation produced by the school safety team would be exempt from the Access to Public Records Act.
“We believe it is a serious mistake to shroud both school safety plans and the discussions surrounding those plans by those in charge of establishing and implementing them,” said the ACLU in written testimony to the House committee.
The second piece of legislation, H-5940 and S-800, would require every school safety plan to be reviewed on an annual basis and confirmed to the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate and the governor. McNamara says the goal is to ensure these plans are reviewed annually.
“It’s a current statute, which I was involved in writing over a decade ago and is somewhat dated,” said McNamara in a phone interview Friday. “We thought they really need updating.”
The ACLU believes keeping information confidential would undo the transparency provided by R.I.G.L. 16-21-25 in terms of school safety plans being available for public comment and complying with open meeting laws. That law was adopted in 2001, following the shootings at Columbine High School.
The ACLU says removing transparency and allowing school safety plans to be determined in private “undermines important public policy goals, is more likely to encourage the adoption of flawed safety plans and may foster concern and distrust among parents.”
“With the availability of the Internet, it has provided the ability for greater communication,” said McNamara. “However, what we have also learned is there are individuals who are very able to and want to cause harm to our children, and they also have the ability to use the Internet.”
McNamara explained that parents would be assured a safety plan is in place, but specific details such as where students go during an evacuation should remain confidential.
“[Plans being public knowledge] jeopardizes the security of the students and the staff in the school,” said McNamara. “It’s like Bill Belichick giving his game plan to his opponents so they know exactly what play is coming.”
While they acknowledge releasing certain information would endanger students, the ACLU says many factors will have to be made public knowledge to be properly implemented.
ACLU believes the public needs to be made part of the conversation when it comes to school safety. Since the events in Newtown, there have been debates on every aspect of school safety, including the benefits of resource officers, the use of armed guards as suggested by the NRA, crisis response training in schools, safety costs and much more.
“Passage of this legislation would quash much of that debate in Rhode Island at the local level,” reads ACLU testimony. “Under this legislation, all of these discussions could take place in secret, and any policies, practices or procedures emanating from those discussions could be secret as well.”
According to testimony, the ACLU believes the public can provide valuable input or even point out flaws in plans when they are allowed to be involved in discussions.
They say this legislation can lead to “the assumption that all of the withheld plans are as good and protective of the public as they could be, and that the public has nothing to offer in terms of recommending changes or providing oversight.”
McNamara says the public would not be completely removed from the conversation and would be able to provide input to school safety plans. “The school can make and give broad outlines,” said McNamara. “What we are not going to disclose is where kids are going to be.”
McNamara also said that in the case of an emergency, parents would be notified through an alert system that is currently in place in many districts across the state including Warwick. In the event of an emergency, parents and guardians are automatically alerted through text, e-mail or calls.
In a phone interview Friday, Brown said it was understandable that certain security documents would need to be kept confidential, but “the exemption should be focused on those, not a blanket exemption of all documents related to school safety.”
“We will be working with various government organizations to get General Assembly members to reconsider passing the bill, at least in its current form,” said Brown.
The testimony conclusion reads, “the ACLU firmly believes that there is much more to be lost than gained by keeping so much of the discussion and documentation of school safety plans hidden from the public and from the parents of the school children they are designed to protect.”
While McNamara appreciated the work done by the ACLU, saying they are a voice he listens to often, he respectfully disagrees with the organization on this issue.
Both bills passed through the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare with a recommendation for passage and are scheduled to go to the House floor on April 24.
In the Senate committee, the companions to both of McNamara’s bills were held for further study.