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Four open government organizations today called on Governor Lincoln Chafee to amend legislation he has introduced that would make secret a wide array of government documents and discussions relating to school safety. In a letter to the Governor, the R.I. Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Rhode Island, and Common Cause Rhode Island called the legislation “a major step backward for parental involvement in critical school matters and for the public’s right to know.”
The legislation, H-5941 and S-801, would make secret all school committee discussions, and all school district documents, regarding school safety plans. The letter points out that the issues that could be discussed and dealt with in complete secrecy under this legislation include:
- Should the school committee consider having armed guards or other armed staff in their schools?
- What sort of training will school officials be given in order to best respond to a crisis?
- How will parents be contacted in the event of an emergency?
- How well has a child’s school district complied with state department of education school safety standards?
Noting that some of the policies and procedures that must be included in a school safety plan are clearly designed to be shared with parents and students, the groups argued that “concerns about ‘security’ or ‘safety’ serve no purpose other to prevent any meaningful public oversight in their adoption.” Ironically, one piece of school safety information that would be decided in secret are “strategies for improving communication … among students and between students and staff."
The groups acknowledged that specific types of security-related school information deserve confidentiality, but that the legislation “eliminates the ability of parents and the community to respond to the appropriateness of a school district’s safety plan, or to point out possible safety flaws that could be corrected or strengthened, or to hold school officials accountable if their standards, or implementation of those standards, fall short of state recommendations.”
RIPA President Mark S. Murphy said today: “Transparency is more than a tool to facilitate communication between government and those who put them in office. It is a positive force by itself, in that it makes public officials consider how their choices will be viewed by their constituents, while at the same time encouraging and supporting public input in government business. The governor has an opportunity to propose changes to this bill that can only improve school security planning. We encourage him to take it, and by doing so, back up his own pronouncements about transparency.”
Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of NEFAC, added: “As a parent of two school aged children, I keenly appreciate how difficult it has been to respond to the tragedy in Newtown. I believe the motivation of this law is to greater protect our children and that is a goal with which I completely agree. However, the methods for implementing this plan seem to leave out the very people that should be most concerned: the parents, the community members. Why make the entirety of school safety plans closed to the public? Shouldn’t parents and community members have a say in how best to keep their children safe? Won’t they have critical information and good ideas about how to improve what happens at their children’s schools? We need to respond to protect those most vulnerable among us, particularly children. Let us always keep in mind the importance of protecting our free society, however, and preserving that for our children and our children’s children.”
The House version of the bill has passed the House, and the Senate version has been approved by Senate Education Committee.
A copy of the letter is available here.