published Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Gerber: Bill aims at school safety plans

You’d think that any parent would want to know what the plan is for keeping their child’s school safe.

But under a bill lawmakers in Nashville are considering, parents would never find out if a school’s safety plan was adequate. They’d get little to no information about it.

The bill would bar the public from any meetings held by school officials about safety plans. And any information and records about safety plans involving emergency response for the district or at individual schools would be confidential.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said parents and other taxpaying citizens ought to know something about the safety of schools.

“Maybe we don’t need to know where the locks are or where alarms are,” Fisher said, “but these school districts do need to consider there is public interest in letting the public know something without creating a road map of how to get into a school.”

Under state law, contingency plans on how to respond to violence at a school are already confidential. The proposed legislation appears to widen the net on what would be kept confidential.

At first blush, closing all school safety plans sounds like a logical argument to make. You don’t want safety gaps to be common knowledge that could inform the next Adam Lanza, who killed his mother, himself and 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Of course not. Never.

But totally closing off information about school safety isn’t the right solution, either. It’s in the public’s interest to know that school districts are using reasonable practices for keeping schools secure, Fisher said.

Under the broad net of the proposed legislation, the public won’t ever find that out. We’d be left assuming that school districts were fixing problems, closing safety gaps and making schools safe as possible. But we’d never really know because the essential “check” in the checks-and-balances system wouldn’t be there.

And when it comes to a child’s safety, that’s not good enough.

Yes, we put the lives and safety of our children in the hands of school officials almost every day. Yes, we trust them to take steps to protect them from danger. No, we don’t want to jeopardize those plans.

But as parents, we should never be shut out of the process entirely. That’s taking trust just a little too far.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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