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As the nation struggles to recover after the tragic events in Newtown, school communities are reminded about the importance of maintaining vigilance concerning school safety. Sadly, while we know that there is no way to fully guarantee that our schools will be safe under all circumstances, most of us would agree with President Obama’s sentiment that “if there is even one step we can take to save another child or another parent, or another town, then surely we have an obligation to try.” For school boards and school administrators, that step involves a review of school district safety plans and emergency response plans for every school building in the district. These documents are among the most important ones that school boards must approve as they represent your district’s best effort to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from emergency situations.

What are the requirements of SAVE?

After the Columbine shootings in 1999, the New York State Legislature passed the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act (SAVE), which took effect in 2000. In accordance with SAVE, New York public school districts are legally required to maintain both a district-wide school safety plan and a building level school safety plan to prepare for and respond to emergencies. School safety plans must include the following essential elements:

  • A viable chain of command to implement the safety plan.
  • Defined procedures to communicate with law enforcement and other authorities.
  • Methods to inform staff, students, parents and the community.
  • Procedures for people with special needs.
  • An annual training program.

How can school boards evaluate the quality of their district’s plans? A good reference is the New York State Education Department’s Guidance Document for School Safety Plans (http://goo.gl/yYaE6). This document provides a solid basis to review school safety plan procedures and processes – both at the district and the building level – and it contains a wealth of information including a summary of the legal regulations, sample school safety plans, training advice and checklists.

While there are myriad issues worthy of review, one that has been of particular interest after Newtown involves lockdown procedures.

A lockdown procedure is most commonly used when a building has an intruder. School staff and students should be secured in the rooms they are currently in and no one should be allowed to leave until the school is safe. Districts and BOCES should review their school safety plans to ensure that they are detailed and contain specific steps to implement lockdown procedures after a threat has been identified, and these procedures should be practiced during routine drills. Some of these steps may include the following:

  • Lockdown signal is given – may be a code phrase or audible sound from speakers.
  • Call 911.
  • Teachers and staff follow pre-set instructions to secure doors, turn off lights, cover windows, pull shades and move students out of the line of sight of door windows.
  • Teachers and staff take attendance and record students that are in the room, record missing and extra students from the hall, and await further instructions.
  • All activities cease.
  • Students and staff outside the building must evacuate to a pre-determined, off-campus location.

Who develops school safety plans?

The district-wide school safety plan is developed by a district-wide school safety team, which is appointed by the school board (or, in New York City, the chancellor). The team includes, but is not limited to, representatives of the school board, students, teachers, administrators, parent organization representatives, school safety staff and other school personnel.

The building-level school safety plan for each school building is developed by a building-level school safety team. This team is appointed by the building principal and includes teachers, administrators and representatives of parent organizations, school safety staff and other personnel, community members, local law enforcement officials, local ambulance or other emergency response company personnel, and any other representatives that the school board, chancellor or other governing body deems appropriate.

What are the laws and regulations regarding security guards and firearms on school property?

The question of whether to place trained security guards with guns in schools is left up to the discretion of local school districts. However, school districts that decide to employ armed guards must be careful to follow applicable laws and regulations regarding the training and employment of such security guards including, but not limited to, the Security Guard Act of 1992 (Gen. Bus. Law section 89-f(5), (7)).

Pursuant to federal law, specifically the Gun-Free Schools Act (20 USC section 7151(b)(1)), students are prohibited from bringing firearms to school or possessing firearms at school. Provisions in section 3214(3)(d) of the Education Law involving student discipline serve to implement the Gun-Free Schools Act’s requirements in New York.

In limited circumstances, where an individual has obtained written authorization from the school district, non-students – including security guards – may be authorized to possess licensed firearms on school property. New York Penal Law section 265.01 provides in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon…when…(3) He knowingly has in his possession a rifle, shotgun or firearm in or upon a building or grounds, used for educational purposes, of any school, college or university…or upon a school bus… without the written authorization of such educational institution(emphasis added) Despite the exception provided in the Penal Law for individuals with written authorizations, some school districts have chosen to impose more stringent policies and codes of conduct that completely ban both students and non-students from possessing firearms on school property.

How does the new gun control law affect school districts?

On Jan. 15, 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a new package of gun control legislation. The new law contains three provisions specifically aimed at helping school districts.

First, it adds a section to the Education Law establishing School Safety Improvement Teams. These teams may be comprised of representatives from the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, the Division of State Police, the Division of Criminal Justice Services, and the Education Department. School districts may voluntarily, but are not required to, submit school safety plans to be reviewed and assessed by the School Safety Improvement Teams, and these teams may make recommendations to improve such plans.

Second, a new building aid category has been created in the Education Law to apportion funds to school districts for the purchase of stationary metal detectors, security cameras, safety devices for electrically operated partitions and room dividers. This new aid category provides a reimbursement rate that is 10 percent higher than a school district’s current building aid ratio and pertains only to projects approved by the commissioner of education after July 1, 2013 and before July 1, 2016.

Third, the law increases the penalty for criminal possession of a weapon on school grounds from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony.

There is also a new reporting requirement for mental health professionals, defined pursuant to this law as including physicians, psychologists, registered nurses and licensed clinical social workers.

When a mental health professional is providing treatment services to a person that is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others, that mental health professional is required to report the individual to the local Director of Community Services (chief executive officer of the county’s mental health/hygiene department).

If that individual agrees that the person is likely to engage in harmful conduct, he or she will make a report to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, which will determine whether the individual is ineligible for a firearm license, should have his or her license suspended or revoked, or is no longer permitted to possess a firearm.

Mental health professionals will not be subject to civil or criminal liability based on their decisions to report or not report, provided that their decisions are made reasonably and in good faith. The law is not clear as to whether this reporting requirement applies to school based mental health professionals since such professionals do not customarily provide “treatment services” to students in a school setting.

Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts. This article was written by Candace J. Gomez of Lamb & Barnosky, LLP.