The State Education Department (SED) needs to improve its efforts to ensure school districts are following state requirements for school safety planning, including whether those plans are shared with local first responders, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
The audit found that SED did not do enough to make certain that the requirements under the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act were being met by school districts. For instance, many of the school districts the auditors visited could not demonstrate they had adopted annual safety plans in accordance with SED guidance, held public hearings on the plans, appointed some required personnel to district-wide safety teams or trained employees on the plans.
“Horrific school shootings across the country show the urgent need for schools to remain vigilant against threats to student and teacher safety,” DiNapoli said. “New York schools are required to develop and regularly review safety plans as part of the SAVE Act. The State Education Department needs more staff and resources to help make sure those plans are being developed and sound. I urge the state Legislature to look at this issue. We don’t want to nickel and dime the safety of our children.”
The audit released today is part of DiNapoli’s initiative to focus on educational issues in his new term. Upcoming audits will look at safety planning at several local districts across New York and violence in New York City schools as well as New York City’s Universal Pre-K program. The audit released today looked at schools outside New York City. DiNapoli’s next audit on school safety examines the New York City Department of Education and New York City schools.
The SAVE Act, enacted in 2000, aims to prevent school violence and increase the safety of students and teachers in New York’s public schools. The act requires school districts to establish a code of conduct, mandates training and instruction for preventing and responding to incidents of school violence, and establishes a uniform system for reporting violent incidents.
The SAVE Act also requires schools and districts to be prepared to respond to incidents when they occur. Specifically, it requires public school districts, charter schools and BOCES programs to develop comprehensive district-wide safety plans and building-level emergency response plans. SED regulations were also developed to provide additional guidance and details on school safety planning requirements. The requirements outlined in the law and regulations apply to public schools and districts, but not to private schools.
DiNapoli’s auditors examined SED’s oversight of school safety planning requirements from Sept. 1, 2016 through Sept. 27, 2018. They analyzed the available department data related to building plan submissions by school districts and reviewed and analyzed information related to school safety planning collected by SED.
Auditors found that SED is not providing critical oversight to ensure schools have adequate and up-to-date safety plans. While SED has collected certain required school safety planning information directly from the school districts, the department has not reviewed or verified what it has collected or monitored school districts’ compliance with other requirements in the law or regulations. Absent stronger direction and oversight from the department, there is a risk that school districts will continue to misinterpret requirements related to the school safety plans.
During the audit period, SED had assigned just one staff member with part-time responsibility to oversee school safety planning requirements. SED assigned another staff member in spring 2018, but both individuals have other responsibilities, and neither is able to focus solely on monitoring school safety planning.
The audit also found that SED has primarily focused on ensuring districts submitted their building plans to the State Police annually. Their efforts resulted in 99 percent of required plans being submitted to the State Police.
The law requires that school districts submit a copy of each building plan to local law enforcement. This requirement is among the most important provisions in the act, as local law enforcement would likely be among the first on the scene of an emergency. Auditors found that due to the lack of a standardized procedure for submitting building plans to local law enforcement, SED does not have any assurance that this requirement is being met.
Auditors met with officials at 15 school districts (see audit for list) and reviewed the 14 public districts’ compliance with school safety planning requirements. DiNapoli’s audit found only partial compliance with the requirements. For example: 12 school districts did not have evidence of the required 30-day comment period for their district plan; 10 of the 14 districts had not completed annual staff training; and 9 of 14 districts did not include at least one of the required representatives on their safety teams. The 15th district is private and not subject to the SAVE Act.
SED has never submitted a report on the implementation of and compliance with the provisions of the law to the Governor and the Legislature, even though it has been required to do so annually since 2000, auditors discovered. Without those reports, lawmakers don’t have the information necessary to evaluate whether the law is working as intended and whether protections are in place for children and staff.
DiNapoli recommended SED:
- Develop a program to monitor school districts’ compliance with school safety planning requirements outlined in the law, regulations and SED guidance;
- Clarify expectations for compliance with requirements under the law, regulations and department guidance including expectations for public comment periods, public hearings, plan adoption and training requirements; and
- Prepare and submit the required annual reports to the Governor and the Legislature.
SED officials generally agreed with the audit recommendations and indicated they will act to address them. SED was awarded a five-year School Emergency Management Grant from the U.S. Department of Education in September 2018 and expects to use a portion of the funds to hire a full-time staff person to improve its oversight of emergency response planning requirements.
SED officials disagreed with the finding regarding submission of plans to local law enforcement, stating that plans are entered into the Integrated Justice Portal. However, auditors found that this access is not always reliable for all local law enforcement agencies.
SED’s full response is included in the final audit.
Read the report, or go to: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093019/sga-2019-18s34.pdf
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