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Chafee signs bills shielding R.I. school safety plans from public view

BY STEVEN BROWN, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE – Last year, after a ten-year struggle by open government groups to get the law updated, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted some important reforms to the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA). Regrettably, this year the legislature appeared to show buyer’s remorse, passing bills that will keep Rhode Islanders in the dark on important issues.

The most troubling legislation enacted this month deals with school documents. Under the guise of responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy, the General Assembly enacted a law that exempts all “school safety plan” documents from release under APRA, and further allows school committees to discuss those plans in complete secrecy.

The ACLU testified, to no avail, that this would unfairly leave parents in the dark about what schools were doing to protect their children. Without public input, schools will be more likely to adopt flawed school safety plans, and nobody will be able to determine if schools are meeting safety standards.

At one time, General Assembly members understood this. In fact, the original school safety legislation that the new law amends was enacted shortly after the Columbine shootings and, until these recent changes, explicitly required school districts to adopt their safety plans in public and only after receiving public comment.

As if that weren’t bad enough, legislators went on to approve a supplemental bill – in case they missed anything in the first one – that further exempts from public disclosure any school documents that are “intended to be used” to protect students from undefined “potential and actual threats.”

Thus, school emergency plans in the event of a fire or hurricane will now be secret. The ACLU, Common Cause Rhode Island, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and the RI Press Association urged Chaffee to veto these bills, but the call went unheeded. They were among the many measures Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed into law last week.

This legislation is a troubling step backward from the promise of transparency and openness that accompanied the passage last year of comprehensive amendments to APRA.

Both of these pieces of legislation ask parents to simply trust their school officials to do the right things in protecting their children. But parents have a right to participate in discussions about their children’s safety, not be kept in the dark and rely on blind faith. When they – or the media or PTOs – are barred from finding out whether, for example, their schools are complying with state laws governing fire drills, the secrecy authorized by these bills serves no public interest other than to protect school officials from the scrutiny they deserve in a free society.

The safety of young children is extremely important, but in the name of protecting them, these new laws do just the opposite.