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Overhaul to Alabama school safety and student discipline standards set to kickoff this year

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s schools are set for some significant changes in the coming months with the recent passage of bills aimed at both improving school safety and establishing standards for responding to student misbehavior.

School safety

Among those bills is the School Security Act, which mandates periodic inspections of all public schools and assigning them a grade based on their security needs. Grant money for improvements could follow in subsequent budgets. Priority will be given to schools with the highest need.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News recently the bill came to be after discussions with the State Superintendent Eric Mackey and leadership from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, both of which highlighted the significant differences between schools’ security measures.

“School security is extremely important obviously, and becomes even more important after every school shooting around the country that we have, (but) it’s also an area that the need is endless; you can spend as much as you want and still need more,” Orr told ADN. 

“As the (Senate education budget committee) chair, that concerned me because if you just divided it up among the schools, how do you know what’s getting spent (is getting spent) in the best way and the most needed way? Some school systems may have greater needs than others.”

Sen. Arthur Orr chairs an April 30 meeting of the Senate Finance & Taxation Education Committee.

Set to go into effect on Oct. 1 of this year, the bill will set up an impartial group of evaluators who will determine the security needs of each school based on a new set of physical security criteria.  

Inspections of schools are mandated every five years, and it also establishes a new school mapping program to digitally map all public schools, documenting detailed floor plans and critical utility locations.

The mapping data, which will be gathered by ALEA, is not subject to public record requests, but would be readily shared with public safety agencies.

That process, ALEA spokesperson and Sergeant Jeremy Burkett told ADN in an email Thursday, is set to begin in the coming weeks.

“ALEA will work with concerned parties over the next several weeks to assess the current status of school mapping and develop a plan to implement the school mapping program,” Burkett said.

“We also look forward to working closely with ALSDE, the Fire Marshal, local school officials and law enforcement agencies to maximize and coordinate resources that will improve school security.”

Funding for the security grants will come from a School Security and Fire Safety Fund, the specific funding for which has yet to be decided. Orr previously predicted an annual allocation of between $10 million and $20 million.

“The idea would be that we have a state-funded pot of money that then can be drawn down starting with those that have the greatest need,” Orr said. “It’s going to depend on the dollars that the Legislature wants to appropriate.”

The Alabama State Fire Marshal, in conjunction with ALEA, will establish some of the security criteria schools will be required to adhere to.

State Fire Marshal Scott Pilgreen told ADN Thursday that it still wasn’t clear exactly what role his agency would play in setting up and ensuring compliance of the new school safety standards. 

He did say, however, that many public schools have serious security shortcomings, largely with fundamental security systems like malfunctioning exterior doors.

“The basic systems that those schools, when constructed, were equipped with are not being maintained – in my opinion – to the level that they need to be maintained; this is a problem that’s a lot bigger than people realize throughout our school systems,” Pilgreen told ADN.

“We need to get back to the fundamentals and address the basic stuff, get those basic safety items in proper working order, and then let’s introduce all of the other technology that’s available to us today.”

Alabama State Fire Marshal Scott Pilgreen (right) partakes in a meeting of the School Safety Advisory Committee.

Pilgreen championed the idea of setting basic security standards for all schools, but stressed that the immediate priority should remain improving basic security systems before all else.

“The strength of that safety component is only as strong as its weakest link, and if our weakest link is an exit door, and it’s not secure or operating properly, then that’s a problem,” he said.

The School Security Act’s passage came on the heels of several meetings of the School Safety Advisory Committee, a body created in 2016 that sat dormant for years until being resurrected early this year by House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville.

“(The School Security Act) implements compressive school safety criteria and mandates safety evaluations to ensure schools have the resources to protect students from potential threats,” Ledbetter told ADN Thursday. 

“By doing this, we have developed and funded a road map to improving safety for students, teachers and faculty in the state of Alabama.”

Student discipline

Another one of Orr’s many bills that became law this year was Senate Bill 157, dubbed the “Teacher’s Bill of Rights.”

“This comes from a hearing from educators (over) the past several years who are frustrated, demoralized, perhaps a bit angered at the lack of control that they have in their classrooms,” Orr said. 

“As I dug deeper into it, the problem seemed to come from a lack of support, usually down the hall from the principal’s office.”

Set to go into effect June 1. Orr said that principals, who he called “overworked,” often don’t have time to appropriately discipline students, setting a precedent of there being no consequences for misbehavior. 

Under the law, if a teacher dismisses a student to a principal, before being permitted to return to the classroom, the principal must provide a written certification to the teacher. If the principal determines disciplinary action is warranted, they would then be required to contact the student’s parent or guardian.

The bill also includes a series of disciplinary escalations for repeated incidents, up to suspension or mandated transfer to an alternative school.

“Hopefully now with these standards and this process that’s dictated of what has to happen, that the parents have to get involved because of the misbehavior of their child, the hope is that that will get them engaged,” Orr said. “If the child doesn’t improve, then you go up the penalty ladder.”

The bill saw some pushback when debated in the Alabama House, largely over concerns that statewide standards for student discipline went over the heads of local school districts, thereby removing local autonomy.

“I understand why some may not like it, but something had to be done because we’re losing too many teachers because they don’t get any support,” Orr said in response to some of the bill’s opponents.

House Bill 188 was another bill adopted into law this session that sets standards for student discipline, though more narrowly focused on standards related to student expulsion.

Sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, and Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, the bill mandates that local boards of education adopt rules related to long-term student suspensions and expulsions, rules that must be approved by the State Board of Education.

The bill also affords students facing suspension or expulsion the opportunity to appeal the decision during a hearing before a local education board, which must be held within 10 school days of the initial suspension decision. It would only apply in instances where students are facing suspension or expulsion of two weeks or more.

“Students were the only ones that don’t really have a due process in place, and now they do, so I’m glad to be a part of that,” Collins told ADN on Friday.

“A lot of times, there’s just a conflict of personality or something, and so to give a student another adult to tell their side to in some type of a discipline hearing, that was the goal of this bill, and I think we were able to achieve that.”

The bill faced some opposition when debated on the House floor, opposition that Collins said she felt came from local school systems wanting to maintain as much local control as possible.

“I think (the opposition) came from local systems that don’t want the state interfering with how they do any of their business, so my goal became to try to have a model policy that was very similar to what high-performing schools were already doing,” she said.

“It wouldn’t even make a change in a lot of cases, but for those that didn’t have a system in place, this would give them a process to handle a long-term suspension.”

It will go into effect on Oct. 1 of this year.

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