School Safety Plans and Access to School Buildings
January 7, 2013

By D&K's School and Higher Education Law Team

As the country watched the tragic events unfold in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, December 14, 2012, Wisconsin's school district employees, school students, and the public began to raise questions of their own about the school safety plans in place in their local school districts. Many also posed questions about a school district's ability to prohibit certain individuals from having access to school buildings and other property.

No single initiative can ensure pupil safety and compliance with relevant school safety statutes cannot guarantee that hazards to pupils' welfare will never surface. Nevertheless, at a minimum, school officials need to be in a position to reassure the public that they have complied with applicable statutory requirements and, in addition, that they have considered those mandates in the context of school shootings and other deadly hazards.

School Safety Plans

For more than 40 years, Wisconsin public school districts have been required to conduct fire drills. In 2007, the Wisconsin Legislature added the obligation to drill pupils "in the proper method of evacuation to a safe location as if in the case of a tornado or other hazard." A few years later, 2009 Wisconsin Act 28 and 2009 Wisconsin Act 309 modified the statutes to require specific components for school safety plans and to establish minimum standards for training and practice drills under the plans.

Wis. Stat. § 118.07(2)(a), currently states:

Once each month, without previous warning, the person having direct charge of any public or private school shall drill all pupils in the proper method of departure from the building in case of a fire, except when the person having direct charge deems that the health of the pupils may be endangered by inclement weather conditions. At least twice annually, without previous warning, the person having direct charge of any public or private school shall drill all pupils in the proper method of evacuation to a safe location in case of a tornado or other hazard. At least twice annually, without previous warning, the person having direct charge of any public or private school shall drill all pupils in the proper method of evacuation or other appropriate action in case of a school safety incident. The public and private school safety drill shall be based on the school safety plan adopted under s. 118.07 (4). A safety drill may be substituted for any other drill required under this paragraph. The school board or governing body of the private school shall maintain for at least 7 years a record of each fire drill, tornado or other hazard drill, and school safety drill conducted.

Thus, as in the past, schools are required to conduct fire drills on a monthly basis. In addition, schools are also required to conduct tornado drills or drills that relate to "other hazards(s)" that involve safe evacuation procedures at least twice a year. Additionally, while it is not explicitly required by the statute, many schools conduct intruder drills to help pupils prepare for the specific dangers associated with violence in school buildings.

School boards are now also required to adopt a school safety plan. The school safety plan must be in place by May 26, 2013. The school safety plan must be created with the active participation of appropriate parties identified by the school board, which can include local law enforcement officers, fire fighters, school administrators, teachers, pupil services professionals, as defined in Wis. Stat. § 118.257 (1) (c), and mental health professionals. Moreover, the safety plan must include general guidelines specifying procedures for emergency prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, as well as the process for reviewing the methods for conducting mandatory drills. Furthermore, the school board must designate employees for school safety plan training, determine the frequency of the training, and develop the training based upon the school district's prioritized needs, risks, and vulnerabilities. Finally, the school board must review the school safety plan at least once every 3 years after the plan goes into effect.

As the deadline for adopting school safety plans nears, school district officials should: (1) consider the manner in which the plan has been developed to confirm that the appropriate parties were involved; (2) review the plan to verify that it includes all the necessary components; (3) evaluate the list of positions/persons designated for school safety plan training, the training materials, and the training schedule; and (4) establish a calendar that requires the school board to evaluate the plan at least once every 3 years.

Access to School Buildings

People visit the school building or other school property for a variety of reasons, and may believe they have a right to be present at school or during a school-sponsored event. However, regulating the presence of visitors is one way that school boards protect the district's staff and students.

Wisconsin Statute Section 120.13(35) authorizes school boards to adopt rules that apply to individuals that enter or remain in a building operated by the school board, including requirements that such persons identify themselves and sign in, and designating time periods during which such persons may enter or remain in the building or any portion of the building. Some school boards prohibit visitors during the school day, except in unique circumstances. Other school boards encourage parents and other members of the public to visit the school buildings, but require them to seek approval ahead of time and/or provide a specific purpose for the visit. Most school boards require visitors to register at an office or with a receptionist when they enter a school building and before proceeding to any other location in the building.

While parents and other visitors may claim that they have a constitutional right to be present on school property, courts have consistently held that such a right is tempered by the school district's power and authority to manage and control the schools and other district property. Thus, as long as school boards act in good faith in regulating access to school buildings and property, the courts will generally not interfere in a school board's decision to deny access to a particular person(s). See, Hannemann v. Southern Door County School District, 673 F.3d 746 (7th Cir. 2012) (A former student, who threatened physical violence against members of the school community, has no constitutional right to access school grounds, such that the school district could ban him indefinitely from school grounds); and Brown v. Michigan City, Indiana, 462 F.3d 720 (7th Cir. 2006) (A convicted child molester has no constitutional right to access City parks, such that the City could ban him from its parks based upon its compelling interest in safeguarding children).

In light of the compelling concerns that students, parents, staff and other members of the community have about safety, school district officials should review board policy governing access to school buildings in order to confirm that the policy provides adequate protections. A policy that allows unfettered or unregulated access to school buildings by visitors should be revised. Moreover, a policy that has not been implemented or is not supported by adequate training is as ineffective as no policy at all. School district officials may also wish to take time to review these policies with school district staff, especially receptionists and other staff whose job duties make them the first point of contact with the public.

Conclusion

The attorneys at Davis & Kuelthau, s.c., recognize the important role of school district officials in maintaining the safety and security of public schools across the State of Wisconsin and throughout the country. Our hearts go out to all the victims of the violence in Newtown, Connecticut and we pledge our best efforts to help make our schools as safe as they can be.

If you have questions or would like additional information on this matter, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau attorney.

 

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