Schools prepare to incorporate safety changes in proposed law
Should legislation requiring school safety assessments every three years and annual reviews of safety plans pass in the General Assembly, Warwick Superintendent Richard D’Agostino says his department is ready to comply.
Legislation that would require all school districts in the state to conduct safety assessments and adopt safety plans in executive session has made its way through committees on both sides of the General Assembly. The House passed Bill 5941 on April 24; the companion bill, 801, is scheduled for a vote in the Senate today.
D’Agostino explained that a committee has already been formed to look over the current safety plan and address any concerns. The committee includes the mayor, chiefs of police and fire, and school principals, among others.
“Beginning in June, we are going to sit down and go over the existing plan,” said D’Agostino in a phone interview last week. According to the legislation, school departments will need to conduct the safety assessment within 30 days of passage.
“By that time, it should be pretty clear how our policy meets or needs to change to meet recommendations that come down from this legislation,” said D’Agostino.
In addition to the need for annual safety assessments and for the school committee to adopt plans in executive session, this legislation also requires the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to set the model plan for schools to follow.
Representative Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick) says RIDE has been a supportive partner for this legislation and they too are prepared should the bills pass.
“They will be distributing the latest, best procedure to every school,” said McNamara. The representative also said RIDE will provide a checklist of the protocols that each school district needs to have in place.
While the requirement of school safety plans was implemented a decade ago, McNamara says through the development of this legislation, which began following the events in Newtown, Conn., RIDE discovered that some school systems’ plans are in need of improvement.
“We are now asking [all school districts] to submit those plans and review them with local law enforcement and first responders,” said McNamara.
One of the major changes for safety plans McNamara mentioned is the use of coded language. Many law enforcement offices use a code system (Code Green, Code Yellow, Code Red) to describe different situations. The issue is the meaning of those codes can vary by city.
“Everything should be in plain language,” said McNamara.
He went on to say that coded language for situations could cause confusion when neighboring police and fire departments respond to an event.
“We are a small state. Different departments could respond. We need to make sure they have the same code,” said McNamara.
McNamara also took a moment to address the concerns from some good government groups such as the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The group has spoken against this legislation, saying the public has a right to know and weigh in on the safety plans for schools.
While he respects those organizations and the work they do, McNamara has to disagree.
“I appreciate those concerns, but there are times when you have to make decisions. If we make every detail public, unfortunately in today’s world, we have to consider that there are sick individuals who will use that plan and that information to hurt our students,” said McNamara, adding that the secrecy portion of the legislation was the recommendation of Rhode Island State Police.
He said even fellow legislators initially questioned the decision to create plans in executive sessions, but they ultimately understood the concerns.
“It’s an indication of the world we live in,” said McNamara. “We are conscience that we can do a better job protecting our schools.”
Even if the bill passes on the Senate floor today, both pieces of legislation will need to go through the process again on the opposite side. No date has been set for those hearings or votes, but McNamara is confident the legislation will become law before the end of the session in June.
“The events in Newtown brought to light the vulnerability of our schools,” said McNamara when asked why he thought the bill was successful. He added that the Assembly understands their responsibility in this situation and has more of an awareness of safety and security.
D’Agostino is making preparations. In addition to the committee, two school principals have attended a school safety conference and various members of the committee have participated in workshops across the state.
“It will be sitting down and looking at what we have and how we can make it better,” said D’Agostino. “We are prepared.”