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Keeping R.I. parents in the dark

By Steven Brown, executive director, Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union

In light of the tragedy at Newtown, there is an understandable interest in strengthening school safety. But discussions of this issue cannot be complete, thorough or optimal if they are conducted largely in secret. Unfortunately, Governor Lincoln Chafee and legislative leaders have proposed legislation (H 5941/S 801) that would reverse more than ten years of transparency, shroud the school safety process in secrecy, and keep parents in the dark about how their children are being protected.

Under the legislation, and contrary to current law, all school safety plan discussions would take place in closed school committee meetings, and every document produced by school safety teams would be exempt from disclosure under the open records law. Although ways to best protect students from very rare, but terrible, tragedies like Newtown are the subject of lengthy nationwide debate, passage of this legislation would quash much of that debate in Rhode Island.

If this bill passes, many important questions would be decided behind closed doors without any meaningful public input. Among them: Should the school district hire armed guards for every school? What sort of training should school officials be given to best respond to a crisis? What methods should be used to contact parents in the event of an emergency? Will existing school programs be cut to fund new school security measures? Based on state department of education standards, how well is the school district complying with school safety recommendations?

In the name of security, parents will be largely left to wonder and worry exactly what schools have done to promote safety, whether their schools meet statewide recommended safety standards, and if not, whether anything is being done to address the problems. By withholding so much information and holding these important discussions in private, the public will have no opportunity to fully address the appropriateness of a school district’s safety plan, or to hold school officials accountable if their standards, or implementation of those standards, fall short.

Some school safety documents certainly deserve confidentiality, but they – and discussions surrounding them – should be few and far between. Most parents will be more secure knowing what the school is doing to protect their children, rather than being left to guess. We hope the General Assembly will think twice before shutting out parents and the public from this important public debate.