Dispatch editorial: Parents have right to know

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

When entrusting their children to a school for hours each day, parents have a right to know whether there is an emergency safety plan in place in case something bad happens.

Neighbors and taxpayers in a district also have the right to know; it’s a matter of public safety, and having such plans on file with the state has been mandated by state law since 2007.

Yet the official position of the Ohio Department of Education is that it cannot disclose whether a given district or school even has filed such safety plans. Two years ago, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that 166 school buildings had not filed required plans with the state; yet the Education Department now will not say how many still have not done so, let alone reveal any specifics.

A department spokesman told The Dispatch recently that giving out even aggregate numbers could create a safety risk for schools, and referred a reporter to individual school districts to ask whether they had filed plans. This is preposterous; while it’s understandable that school systems would want to keep the details of their plans secret, the existence of the plan needn’t be secret. And there is a clear and compelling public interest in knowing that districts are complying with the law and working to keep kids safe. The state’s top legal official, DeWine, clearly thinks so, so it’s hard to believe that the DOE would say it is denying the same information on legal advice.

This seems like another instance of the Education Department refusing to follow public-records laws. This summer, the department dragged its feet for six weeks before turning over emails related to David Hansen, the former head of school choice for the Education Department. Hansen resigned after it was revealed he had made the performance of some charter schools look better by omitting data in a state assessment. When the emails finally were provided, it raised the question of why Superintendent Richard Ross knew nothing about the data rigging, as he contended, since others apparently had known for more than a year.

In this case, it’s particular schools and districts that might look bad. The General Assembly passed the law requiring safety plans to be filed eight years ago, and DeWine started pressing laggard districts to quickly do so three years ago.

Central Ohio districts have put such plans into use already this school year. Ask Licking Heights High School, which went into a lockdown situation last Friday after a bomb threat (later revealed to be a hoax) was called in. District Superintendent Philip H. Wagner said that all went well because the proper plans were in place at the school and with the state law-enforcement and education agencies.

Safety concerns have become heightened in the wake of several tragic shootings in recent years, but keeping kids safe at school is not a new concept that should take districts by surprise.

From the “duck and cover” bomb drills of the 1950s to required fire evacuation plans through the present day, schools always have been charged with putting protocols in place to ensure safety.

The Education Department should provide the information, and any schools that still haven’t fulfilled their obligation to the state, students and the community should immediately get on board. This is a case where shining a light on stragglers could do a lot to enhance the safety of schoolchildren.