May 25, 2024

Rep. Boylan aims to modernize school safety drill laws

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State House – When 14 police departments across Rhode Island received reports of a school shooting in March 2023, schools went into lockdown while law enforcement quickly responded and determined the calls were a hoax known as “swatting.” While the threat was fake, for many students and teachers, it wasn’t so easy to snap back into their normal routine after fearing for their lives, and Rep. Jennifer Boylan wondered if the needs of teachers and students were being met when it came to emergency response and preparedness.

“I had been thinking a lot about school lockdown protocols ever since attending a lockdown drill at my son’s school in 2013. When I looked at our current laws on school safety drills, I found them to be very minimal. They outline the types of drills and the frequency of drills but provide little guidance on how to do the drills,” said Representative Boylan (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence). “As a result, drills vary across the state, and no one had recently looked into whether schools were performing an appropriate number of drills, and if those drill were effective.”

In the spring of 2023, Representative Boylan sponsored a resolution (2023-H 6422) to create a study commission to bring 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.

With the commission having just published its final report, Representative Boylan is introducing legislation (2024-H 8102) that builds on its recommendations and her experience chairing the commission to clarify the gaps in Rhode Island law regarding school safety drills in order to ensure students and staff are prepared for emergencies while minimizing the interruption to instruction and the traumatic effects of training drills on staff and students.

“Chairing this study commission was invaluable to get a better understanding of the issue and the perspectives of stake holders including students, teachers, school administrations and first responders, all of whom want our kids to be safe at school,” said Representative Boylan. “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.”

The bill addresses the three drills that Rhode Island K-12 students now do. Current law requires monthly evacuation drills, lockdown drills in September and January, plus two additional emergency evacuation drills, which move students farther away from the building than the monthly evacuation drills. The legislation includes reduced number of fire and evacuation drills, enhanced teacher and staff training on emergency procedures and uses the term “crisis response drill” instead of “lockdown drill” to account for the fact that during crisis events, locking down is not necessarily the only option to be considered.

In addition to changing the drill terminology and frequency, the bill includes several new requirements relating to the various drills.

In order to enhance the effectiveness of school safety drills, Representative Boylan’s legislation would require a dedicated staff-only training at the beginning of each school year in collaboration with local first responders. Each October, students in grades 6 to 12 would receive training, either in the classroom or at an assembly, on crisis response procedures. All staff and students would participate in a crisis response drill each January.

The legislation would require that all drills be age appropriate and trauma-informed, and that students with special needs or history of trauma are accommodated yet prepared for an emergency. School administrators and school support personnel would be able to, at their discretion, exempt a student or students from participating in a crisis response drill. Schools would have to provide alternative learning plans for these students, so that all students would still be taught emergency preparedness.

To avoid confusion and panic among parents when drills occur, schools would be required to provide 48-hour advance parental notice for crisis response drills and immediately notify parents afterwards that the drill has ended. Schools would also announce that a drill was beginning as part of the crisis response drill, so that students and staff would not wonder whether the drill is a real emergency or not.

The legislation does not detail the content of trainings and drills but would defer to the School Safety Committee established by the Rhode Island State Police. 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.

The legislation would also reduce the number of annual fire drills from 10 to six per school year. The school administrator would be able to choose to replace one fire drill with an evacuation drill, which involves moving kids farther from the building than a fire drill for an explosive risk, such as a gas leak or bomb threat.

“Our current law of monthly fire drills goes back at least to 1912. Since then, we have made great strides in modern building construction standards, fire alarms, sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and alarm systems,” said Representative Boylan. “The last time an American child died in a school fire was over 60 years ago. Today we can reduce the number of fire drills while still keeping kids safe and prepared.”

Sen. Sandra Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket) will soon introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

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