Commission studying school safety drills needs public input
STATE HOUSE – It’s been nearly 25 years since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, a tragedy whose devastation played out on live television and prompted schools nationwide to begin lockdown and active shooter drills to prepare students and staff for the worst.
Is the benefit of that preparation worth the disruption and the trauma it causes for some participants? That’s one of the questions that a House commission is trying to answer, and it’s seeking input from Rhode Islanders about their experiences.
The Legislative Study Commission to Evaluate and Provide Recommendations on Mandated Safety Protocols for Rhode Island Schools is asking Rhode Islanders to share their experiences and opinions about safety drills — including lockdown and fire drills — and threat response, either in person at the commission’s Dec. 11 meeting, or in writing.
The commission, which is led by Rep. Jennifer Boylan (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence), has solicited public comment previously at its Nov. 8 meeting, but heard from only four individuals; two who attended the meeting and two who submitted written testimony.
Chairwoman Boylan said she is certain that, after so many years of schools across the state performing these mandated activities, more Rhode Islanders have opinions about them.
“Our commission is studying whether the drills we’re doing are enough, not enough or too much, and whether the benefits of preparation outweigh the trauma and fear they can create for some students and staff. Should parents have advance notice of lockdown drills? Should parents be allowed to opt their students out? We have many questions to answer, but we really can’t draw solid conclusions without hearing from the students, the staff, the parents and the members of the public who have experienced them. We need the public’s help to determine what effect these activities are actually having,” said Chairwoman Boylan. “We need those who have grown up in the era of lockdown drills or led students through them for years to provide us their insight so we can determine what that’s like and whether anything needs to change.”
Under current Rhode Island law, schools are required to conduct one fire drill every month and two evacuation drills and two lockdown drills each year. There is significant debate about the mental health impact and efficacy of these drills. Currently, 40 states, including Connecticut, require lockdown drills while 10, including Massachusetts, do not.
A 2023 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found a 39% increase in depression and a 42% increase in stress and anxiety for students in the days following an active shooter drill.
The commission has been tasked with answering complex questions such as whether and when students should be encouraged to evacuate during lockdown events, whether advanced notice should be provided to students and/or parents prior to a lockdown drill and whether the frequency of drills should be changed. The group is also studying the appropriate response to swatting events such as those that occurred at schools across the state earlier this year. Additionally, the commission is investigating how the state can better support schools and teachers in establishing trauma-informed practices associated with drills and lockdowns.
Chairwoman Boylan said the commission has heard from some school staff who say they feel empowered by the preparation that drills provide, and others who find it traumatizing. But the commission needs significantly more input to draw conclusions.
Anyone who would like to offer testimony in person is welcome to do so at the commission’s meeting on Dec. 11 at 4 p.m. in the House lounge on the second floor of the State House. The meeting will also include presentations by David Gilligan, legal counsel to the House of Representatives; and Paul Olszewski, district safety coordinator for Cranston Public Schools.
The meeting may be televised by Capitol Television on Cox Communications, channels 15 and 61 for high definition; i3 Broadband (formerly Full Channel) on 15; and Verizon, on channel 34. Livestreaming will be available at www.rilegislature.gov/CapTV/Pages/default.aspx.