Assembly passes legislation to modernize school safety drills

 

STATE HOUSE — The General Assembly today voted to approve legislation from Rep. Jennifer Boylan and Sen. Sandra Cano to update the laws governing school safety drills to ensure the drills are age and developmentally appropriate, and to ensure schools provide debriefings for students and teachers after actual emergencies.

The bills (2024-H 8102A, 2024-S 2950A) now go to the governor’s desk for his consideration.

The legislation builds on the work done by a study commission Representative Boylan chaired; her 2023 resolution (2023-H 6422) to create that study commission brought together experts and stakeholders to determine what changes, if any, needed to be made to Rhode Island law in light of the national landscape of school shootings as well as recent swatting events in Rhode Island.

“Chairing this study commission was invaluable to get a better understanding of the issue and the perspectives of stake holders including students, teachers, school administrators and first responders, all of whom want our kids to be safe at school,” said Representative Boylan (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence). “This bill addresses many of the issues that we considered during the study commission meetings, especially the issue of how to keep students safe while minimizing the impact on the mental health of students and staff.”

Said Senator Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket), “Our school drills prepare students and teachers to respond to emergencies at school, but often parents and students don’t know what to expect from these emergency drills. This legislation ensures prepares students and their parents for what these drills will have in store so that families can prepare for drills that can be scary and confusing to young children.”

The bill uses the commission’s final report to clarify the gaps in Rhode Island law regarding school safety drills in order to ensure students and staff are prepared for emergencies while limiting the traumatic effects of training drills on staff and students.

The bill mandates that emergency drills be age and developmentally appropriate. Schools must implement trauma-informed practices wherever possible, and drills must include all school personnel, including school mental health professionals and substitute teachers.

It also gives school administrators the discretion to modify an emergency drill for students for who they determine it appropriate, in consultation with a student’s individualized education plan team, if applicable.

The legislation would prohibit active shooter simulations – drills which mimic an actual school shooting using elements such as the sound of live gunfire – in the presence of school teachers or students. Law enforcement would still be able to practice this way on non-school days in coordination with school administrators, but school teachers and staff could not be required to participate.

In order to mitigate the trauma induced by emergency events, the bill would also require schools to develop a plan for debriefing students and staff following incidents that prompt an unscheduled emergency response. This debrief would happen as soon as possible following an actual emergency event, and allow students, teachers and staff the opportunity to debrief in conjunction with school mental health professionals. School administrators would also debrief with local emergency responders to review the response to the drill and note any possible improvements for future drills.

“One thing we learned from the experts who presented at our commission was that keeping students and teachers safe and healthy doesn’t end when the lockdown ends,” said Representative Boylan. “Allowing the affected students, teachers and staff to debrief with school mental health professionals will go a long way to reduce the traumatic aftereffects of lockdowns.”

The legislation would keep the current schedule of monthly fire drills but would remove the two mandatory evacuation drills, which involve moving kids farther from the building than a fire drill for an explosive risk, such as a gas leak or bomb threat. School administrators could choose to replace one fire drill per year with an evacuation drill at their discretion.

To prepare students and their parents, this legislation would require that, at the commencement of each school year, schools provide parents or guardians with a written overview of all emergency drills under the school year, together with a description of each drill and its components. The school administrator would also have the discretion to announce individual emergency drills in advance.

Finally, the bill would require existing school safety plans to incorporate protocols for students and staff to respond to incidents of “swatting,” such as in March 2023, when 14 police departments across Rhode Island received false reports of school shootings, only determining that the calls were a hoax after schools went into lockdown and law enforcement arrived at the schools.

 

 

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