The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings shocked and saddened the nation. It also spurred action in Rhode Island to review safety plans and measures in the state’s schools and to address and strengthen areas that need improvement.
Three pieces of legislation addressing school safety issues have been introduced in both legislative chambers this session. Developed by the General Assembly and the governor’s office, the need for the legislation was discussed at a new conference held today at the State House. Addressing the importance of enacting the bills were Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Speaker of the House Gordon D. Fox, President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed, and the chairs of the two committees where the bills were scheduled for a hearing today – Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick), Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, and Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), Chair of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare.
The bills set out to accomplish several goals and set requirements for government agencies. The bills:
Require the Department of Education to create best practices for school safety plans to share with school districts, as well as checklists that districts can use to assess strengths and weaknesses of their safety plans;
Direct school districts to conduct a school safety assessment in conjunction with local municipal police and fire departments;
Amend and expand the requirements as to what must be in each school district’s school safety plan;
Support better communication among first responders and within schools by emphasizing the use of plain language in emergency situations;
Codify the need for closer collaboration among RIDE; the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Emergency Management Agency, State Police, State Fire Marshal and other safety officials;
Allow school committees to review school safety plans in executive session to provide a further level of security for students and school employees;
Set details and specifications regarding the type, manner and frequency of safety drills in educational facilities.
Discussing the bills at the news conference, Governor Chafee said “The Sandy Hook shootings, which occurred in our neighboring state, in a community similar to so many in Rhode Island, were a difficult reminder that these horrific incidents can occur anywhere. There can be no more important mission than protecting our children, and today we are announcing steps to make Rhode Island students safer and more secure.”
“Nothing in this legislation should give any suggestion that school safety plans in Rhode Island are not well-designed or accomplishing the goal of keeping children and school employees safe,” said Senator Gallo. “But what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, was a clarion call to see if what we have in Rhode Island that is good couldn’t be made better, to ensure that every appropriate step is taken to ensure the well-being of children when they are entrusted to our care while in school.”
Said Representative McNamara, “The tragedy in Connecticut has prompted us to move aggressively to review our current procedures and to make sure our laws and regulations are explicit in their implementation requirements. The legislation before us this session will ensure that we are regularly monitoring our procedures, constantly improving them where we can and ensuring that all the lines of communication among the schools and various state agencies are open and working toward a common goal of keeping schools and the children and employees in them safe.”
Added Speaker Fox, “Amidst all the important work that is done by the General Assembly and state government, in general, nothing can be more important that protecting our children from what we know can be a very dangerous world, even in our schools, where children should feel safe to learn and grow. I want to thank the governor for his input in this issue and I want to compliment Chair Gallo and Chair McNamara, whose experience, expertise and passion about this issue will ensure an improved level of security for school children and school employees alike.”
“These bills ensure that schools are doing all they can to provide for the safety of the children entrusted to their care. I am grateful to Chairwoman Gallo and the members of the Education Committee, as well as Chairman McNamara, for their focus on the important issue of school safety. Working together with Governor Chafee’s administration, they took a collaborative approach in developing this strong legislation,” said President Paiva Weed.
The bills in the House and Senate school safety legislation package and which were to be heard in committee today are:
2013-H 5152 (heard earlier this session in committee) by Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth) and 2013-S 0014 by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Newport, Tiverton).
Specifics of the legislation:
2013-H 5941 and 2013-S 0801 will require all schools to perform a school safety assessment in conjunction with local police, fire and school safety teams within 30 days of passage of the legislation and every three years thereafter. The school safety assessments and school safety plans are exempt from the public records law and all meetings of the school safety team are not subject to open meetings law. When school committees are reviewing school safety plans and emergency response plans, it shall be done in executive session.
The school safety plans require formalized collaborative arrangements among school and local law enforcement and firefighters. The plan must be developed and approved by local law enforcement and fire officials. The plan also requires the use of plain and consistent language in emergencies.
2013-H 5940 and 2013-S 0800 (governor’s bills) require the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to certify annually that all school safety plans and school emergency response plans have been reviewed and updated as appropriate. School safety plans and school emergency response plans are available for public comment unless deemed confidential and school safety team meetings may be held in closed session.
2013-H 5152 and 2013-S 0014 aligns state law regarding fire drills with national standards set by the NFPA life safety code. The bill are expected to be amended in committee to require two drills to be held in the first month of occupancy (September) and one fire drill and one lockdown drill to ensure that students are aware of lockdown drill protocols at the beginning of the school year.
Every month the school must hold a fire drill and in January the drill will be a lockdown drill.
Also, the education code and the fire code as applicable to schools will now be consistent. The Fire Marshal’s office has jurisdiction over the drills as schools are required to submit paperwork to the Department of Education and the State Fire Marshal’s office. Accordingly, if a school does not hold a lockdown drill it will be under the Fire Marshal’s purview for enforcement rather than the Department of Education.
Among the other state officials who attended today’s news conference and who were expected to testify for the bills at the Senate and House committee hearings were: Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist; Craig Stenning, Director, Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Office of Public Safety (State Police) Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell; Rhode Island Fire Marshal John Chartier; Cumberland Police Chief John R. Desmarais, President of the RI Police Chiefs Association, and Tim Ryan, Executive Director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association.