COVID-19 has only highlighted profound gaps in RI law surrounding education. These bills could help. - News from The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, ACLU of Rhode Island News, RIACLU News


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COVID-19 has only highlighted profound gaps in RI law surrounding education. These bills could help.

Posted: May 14, 2020|

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As the timeline for a typical legislative session begins to draw to a close, the Rhode Island General Assembly has begun to take small and cautious steps towards reconvening for the remainder of the 2020 session. While the details are still up in the air, there are many questions surrounding the ways in which transparency and public oversight can coexist with the facilitation of legislative efforts to meet during a pandemic, and which types of legislation the General Assembly will prioritize before they formally conclude the session.

One of the most central components of the response to the COVID-19 crisis was, and continues to be, the manner in which schools sought to provide critical academic and supportive services to students and their families. In many ways, this crisis has only highlighted the profound gaps in our state law surrounding educational policy. The following three bills have been priority pieces of legislation for the ACLU of Rhode Island in this regard, and their importance only grows greater with the perspective of the COVID-19 crisis. We hope to see the consideration of these important bills as the General Assembly slowly makes plans to reopen.

H 7439, S 2734 – School Discipline Reform

Despite the passage of important legislation in 2016 which was intended to address the overzealous use of out-of-school suspensions in Rhode Island schools, the discipline data for many school districts continues to display alarming disparities for both students of color and students with disabilities, and shocking rates of suspension for the youngest students in grades K-5. In addition, not a single district has submitted a statutorily required report to the Rhode Island Department of Education addressing their efforts to mitigate such disparities. H 7439 and S 2734 would largely prohibit out-of-school suspensions for K-5 students and would strengthen the current reporting requirements for school districts.

With students spending so much time outside of the classroom during the COVID-19 crisis, it is even more important that students, especially the youngest and most vulnerable ones, are not in danger of facing prolonged removal from the classroom for extremely minor offenses. Addressing the over-usage of suspensions for marginalized students, in light of the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted and exacerbated systemic inequity and disparities, must be at the forefront of educational policy as students prepare to go back to school in the fall.

H 7509 – School Computer Privacy

Although the ACLU of Rhode Island has closely examined the privacy policies governing the use of school-loaned computers for several years, the emergency transition to virtual education especially spotlighted why comprehensive and statutory protections must be put in place to preserve student privacy while they are utilizing a school-loaned computer.

In April of this year, our organization sent letters to every district regarding their current privacy policies for the use of school-loaned devices. Similar to the study we conducted in 2017, we discovered that many school districts provide extremely limited privacy protections to students, with most districts even allowing themselves unlimited access to the microphone or webcam of a school-loaned device. With the entirety of education taking place remotely, it became even more crucial for districts to update their privacy policies to guarantee protections for students. However, the COVID-19 crisis has emphasized that some issues are most reliably addressed through statewide and statutory policy. We emphasized the need for districts to take immediate steps to amend their privacy policies to include bans on remote access and remote monitoring, but we will be strongly encouraging the General Assembly to take action as well to protect the privacy of students and their families.

H 7171, Article 10 – Mental Health Funding

Article 10 of the proposed FY 2021 budget would allow the current reimbursement funding available for the hiring of school resource officers (SROs) to instead be used for the hiring of mental health professionals by public schools. We have consistently opposed statutorily created financial incentives for the hiring of SROs over other, more critically needed personnel, and supported this budget article during its initial hearing because it would prioritize behavioral and mental support over punitive disciplinary action.

It is critical that a provision such as this remain as the legislature moves forward with addressing the budget with the perspective of the COVID-19 crisis. As the Governor has aptly noted several times during her daily press conferences, the need for mental health support for adolescents is of tantamount importance during a time of turmoil. At the time that students are able to physically return to school campuses, ensuring that they have adequate mental health support, and that any mental health issues are not met with punitive measures, must remain a priority for the General Assembly.

Although this is a small facet of the legislative work which underscores the ways in which COVID-19 has affected Rhode Islanders, these are particular pieces of legislation that can assist in ensuring that inequities do not further persist as the world begins to return to normal. Particularly in schools, such proactive policies can make huge differences in the lives of students and their families in confronting the effects of this pandemic and we encourage the General Assembly to consider and pass these three important bills.

For more information about the ACLU of Rhode Island’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit online our comprehensive COVID-19 page.

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