Vermont state officials want to strengthen school safety procedures 

Dan French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, speaks during a press conference on Sept. 8, 2021. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

State officials are asking lawmakers to pass legislation intended to improve safety procedures in Vermont schools, including provisions to lock school doors and require additional safety drills at least twice a year. 

The proposed reforms, issued earlier this month by the Agency of Education, are an attempt to codify recommendations that were made over four years ago by a state advisory group.

Speaking to the Senate Committee on Education earlier this month, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said the proposed legislation came about after internal discussions over the summer about state education rules.  

“It wasn't so much a reaction to events that are happening nationally,” he said, apparently referring to recent gun violence at schools. 

If passed, the legislation would toughen the requirements for school safety plans — they would have to be “at least as comprehensive” as templates developed by state safety officials — and would require schools to conduct two “options-based” drills every school year.

Options-based drills are open-ended, locally designed drills for responding to a violent intruder. 

“The district needs to evaluate which approach is best and to adapt that approach to the developmental level of their students, including for students with disabilities, language barriers, and mobility needs,” French and the Vermont Department of Public Safety wrote in a letter to school leaders last year, quoting from guidance issued by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Under the proposed regulations, schools would have to lock exterior doors during school hours, and visitors would be required to sign in before entering. 

Districts would also have to create “behavioral threat assessment teams,” which would include administrators, mental health workers, a counselor, nurse and local law enforcement. 

“Duties of the team are to evaluate concerning behaviors, social media posts, verbal and written threats or other actions displayed by students, faculty, staff or others that may have a negative impact on the school,” French wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Education Committee. 

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said in an email that the legislation would “not necessarily” lead to increased law enforcement presence or operations at schools. 

“Threat assessments are highly situation-specific and do not always result in the need for law enforcement intervention,” he said. 

The proposed reforms would apply to both public schools and independent schools.

Jeff Francis and Jay Nichols, the executive directors of the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont Principals’ Association, said they may seek minor tweaks in the proposed legislation but expect to ultimately support it. 

"School safety and security is a high priority, and we've really worked without a statutory framework for the most part,” Francis said. 

In testimony submitted to lawmakers on Jan. 25, however, Don Tinney, president of the Vermont National Education Association, the teachers union, raised several concerns about the proposals. 

The prospect of forcing teachers to make quick, life-and-death decisions in options-based drills has “caused increased levels of stress and anxiety among many of our educators,” he said. And, amid staffing shortages, he said, many of the staff expected to be on threat assessment teams are “already overextended and exhausted.” 

If done wrong, Tinney added in an interview, he worried that behavioral threat assessment could lead to profiling.

“It's important legislation,” Tinney said. “And we need to stay focused on school safety and do everything possible to prevent acts of violence and aggression against our students and our staff.”

Education officials say that many schools’ safety practices are already strong enough to meet the proposed requirements, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many. But codifying the practices into law would ensure that all schools are equally secure, officials argued.

“It is not acceptable to have some schools be safer than others,” Fisher, the spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said in an email.

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Peter D'Auria

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