Schools face mandates, gain flexibility with new laws
Due to legislation recently signed into law, school districts across the state will need to increase the frequency of drills and safety plan reviews, gain flexibility when it comes to a 180-day school year, and be required to offer duel enrollment programs to high school students.
After the shootings in Newtown, Conn., a number of bills were presented concerning both gun control and school safety; four of the bills concerning school safety have been signed into law.
The first, House Bill 5152 and Senate Bill 16, establishes a schedule of fire, lockdown and evacuation drills to be conducted in every school building holding over 25 students. This applies to all elementary, secondary and private schools, as well as institutions of higher education.
The new law, which was signed by Governor Lincoln Chafee on July 15, states, “not less than one emergency egress drill [be] conducted every month the facility is in session with all occupants of the building participating.”
Additionally, two evacuation drills and two lockdown drills need to occur each school year, one in September and one in January, each in conjunction with local police if possible.
The law, which was sponsored by Senator Louis P. DiPalma (D-Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton) and Representative Raymond Gallison Jr. (D-Bristol, Portsmouth), ensures that state fire drills match up with national standards.
The new law also requires paperwork detailing the drills to be submitted to both the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and State Fire Marshal’s office.
The new drill law was part of a three-bill package of school safety laws that were introduced in the House and Senate with support from the governor’s office.
The next law from the package will require all school safety plans to be reviewed by school committees and updated annually. The third law requires school departments to perform comprehensive safety assessments of school buildings along with local police, fire and school safety teams. Both bills were signed on July 11.
The first assessment is required to occur within 30 days of the bill’s passage and every three years after that.
The law also requires RIDE to create a model school safety plan for school districts. According to the law, that plan “shall be based on the best practices in school safety planning and the department of elementary and secondary education shall communicate the plan electronically to all school committees and school safety teams in the state.”
The plan is expected to include items such as plain and consistent language across law enforcement agencies in emergencies, notification processes in the event of an emergency and the duties of school personnel in emergencies.
Elliot Krieger, director of communications for RIDE and Commissioner Deborah Gist, said the office plans to begin work on plans to implement this legislation this week, however RIDE was a part of many discussions when it comes to education laws.
“Governor Chafee called together a number of state agencies, including RIDE, EMA, State Police, State Fire Marshal, Behavioral Healthcare, to develop the package of school safety regulations in the wake of the school shootings in Connecticut,” said Krieger in an e-mail to the Beacon.
Representative Joseph McNamara (D) of Warwick and Senator Hanna Gallo (D) of Cranston were sponsors of the package.
“The legislation will ensure that we are regularly monitoring our procedures, constantly improving them where we can and ensuring that all the lines of communications among the schools and various state agencies and emergency services are open, and working toward a common goal of keeping schools and the children and employees in them safe,” said McNamara in a press release.
The final school safety related bill signed into law adds “all documents prepared by school districts intended to be used by school districts in protecting the safety of their students from potential and actual threats” to the list of documents not part of the public record. The law, signed on July 15, adds such school documents to current legislation that keeps items such as adoption records, military and law enforcement security plans and tax returns as exceptions to the state’s Access to Public Records Act.
Cranston’s Senator Frank Lombardi and Representative Stephen R. Ucci sponsored the legislation.
There are also new laws that will affect policy at schools, including the number of days in a school year.
On July 15, a bill sponsored by Senator Roger Picard (D-Woonsocket, Cumberland) was signed into law, allowing school districts to make the school year less than 180 days. The districts simply need to maintain 1,080 hours of instruction.
According to the law, “the intent herein is to permit school districts to amend their school year to provide for longer school days while reducing the actual number of days in which the school facilities must be fully staffed and maintained.”
In a press release, Picard explained that the bill could allow for school districts with budget difficulties to find ways to save money through scheduling.
“If they find a creative way to save money while providing excellent education, such as longer but fewer school days, or scheduling breaks at times that let them save on heat, under this bill, they would be able to pursue that idea,” said the senator.
If a school district wishes to pursue such an option, a detailed school day plan and proposed school calendar will need to be presented to the Commissioner of Education for approval.
Signed by Chafee on July 11, the Dual Enrollment Equal Opportunity Act will require the Board of Education to create a statewide duel enrollment program.
Dual enrollment means a student is enrolled in a post-secondary course while still enrolled in high school, for both high school and college credit.
According to the law, the Board will come up with regulations for the program addressing post-secondary institution graduation requirements, the institution’s ability to award degrees in the state and the minimum grade needed to receive credit at the high school level. The Board must also create a workgroup of individuals in the education field to address any effects the program can have on school funding because of transportation needs, fee schedules, access to the program for low-income students, contracted tuition costs, and other concerns.
The Board is to have the dual enrollment program established by June 30, 2015 for all school districts, charter schools, career and technical schools, approved private day and residential schools, and collaborative schools.
Finally, although Chafee decided to take no action on Senate Bill 12, the bill was put into effect without the governor’s signature on July 20. The bill allows for schools to provide gender-specific activities, such as father-daughter or mother-son events, as long as “reasonably, comparable activities” are provided for those students of the opposite gender.
The law also states that districts are to inform students “they may bring the adult of their parent’s or guardian’s choice to the event.”
Now that these and other education laws have been put into effect, Krieger explained that RIDE would get to work.
“After legislation is signed into law, we do review all the new legislation to see what effect any new laws may have on public education and, more specifically, what actions RIDE must take,” explained Krieger. “This year, for example, the school safety package requires RIDE to develop a model school safety plan.”
Krieger said Commissioner Gist communicated with superintendents weekly and will update them on legislative changes if necessary, however those updates are normally provided to superintendents and school committees by the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association and Rhode Island Association of School Committees.