The General Assembly is poised to pass a series of very troubling bills that will keep parents, teachers and the public in total darkness when it comes to issues surrounding school safety. The proposed legislation (S-369A, S-801A, H-5941A), supported by the Governor and legislative leaders, would make secret all school committee discussions, and all school district documents, regarding school safety plans.
The enactment of these bills – which has been vigorously opposed by the ACLU, the R.I. Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and Common Cause Rhode Island – would be a major step backward for parental involvement in critical school matters and for the public’s right to know.
To appreciate just how far-reaching this legislation is, consider the following:
- A school committee could discuss and decide in complete secrecy whether to have armed guards or other armed staff in their schools.
- Parents wishing to learn a school’s plans for contacting them in the event of an emergency would be denied the ability their ability to get that information.
- A concerned PTO interested in finding out how well the school district has complied with state department of education school safety standards would be told they have no right to know.
This extraordinary legislative response to tragedies like Newtown is likely to have precisely the opposite effect of what is intended. Rather than making parents feel safer, this blanket secrecy can only make parents feel more insecure and anxious about whether their children will be safe during an emergency.
Ultimately, the legislation is based on an element of hubris — that only school officials know the best way to protect students. The bills eliminate the ability of parents and the community to respond to the appropriateness of a school district’s safety plan, or to point out possible flaws that could be corrected or strengthened, or to hold school officials accountable if their standards, or implementation of those standards, fall short.
Just as we have seen on so many other matters post-9/11, governmental concerns about the need for secrecy in order to promote “security” or “safety” often serve no purpose other to prevent any meaningful public oversight.
In fact, there have recently been unrelated lockdowns in various schools around the state. It is becoming common for parents and the public to be given vague, and ultimately useless, hints about the reasons for these lockdowns, and thus no reason to know whether the threat was serious, or whether schools are engaging in vast, routine and unnecessary over-reactions that only perpetuate a climate of fear detracting from schools’ educational mission.
Obviously, specific types of security-related school information deserve confidentiality, but a complete ban on accessing any school safety policies, or being able to hear the reasons for their adoption, promotes the sort of secrecy that is truly harmful in a democratic society.
In other contexts, the Governor has talked about his administration’s efforts “to provide the public with an increased level of information regarding the operation and management of government.” Passage of this legislation does the opposite and, more ominously, sets the stage for further government attempts to keep all of us in the dark on important matters, all in the guise of doing it for our own good.