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Audit faults state Education Dept., school districts on safety planning

The state comptroller says the department and some schools failed to file and update emergency plans, as required under the SAVE Act of 2000.

"We don't want to nickel-and-dime the safety of our children," said.State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Credit: Jeff Bachner

ALBANY — A state audit finds that the state Education Department and some school districts failed to file and update emergency plans and sometimes failed to adequately communicate the plans with local police, as required under a law designed to make schools safer from mass shootings.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Tuesday the audit found many schools visited by his team couldn’t show that they had adopted annual safety plans or shared them with local law enforcement, likely to be the first responders to a shooting.

“We don’t want to nickel-and-dime the safety of our children,” DiNapoli said.

The state Education Department said it is improving its practices, according to a letter to auditors. It also said certain criticisms go beyond its obligation under the law “and would require additional resources for the department to provide oversight over schools in this regard.”

"There is literally nothing more important than protecting our children,” said Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis on Tuesday. “Our schools must always be safe havens — places where students and their teachers are free to learn and to teach. We are pleased to report 99 percent of schools filed their emergency response plans with the state police. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to improve processes.”

The audit tested the Education Department and a sampling of schools, none of which were identified, against their responsibilities under the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, known as the SAVE Act, of 2000. The state law was created to prevent school violence and make schools safer for students and adults. Among the findings:

  • The state Education Department didn’t provide “critical oversight” to make sure schools had updated safety plans.
  • The department had assigned just one part-time staffer to oversee school safety planning requirements. Another part-timer was added after the audit, which was conducted from September 2016 to September 2018.
  • The department succeeded in submitted school building plans to state police each year, but auditors noted that local police are usually the first to arrive at shootings and other emergencies. Auditors said the state doesn’t have any reliable assurance that local law enforcement had gotten copies of building plans. Auditors said department officials said local enforcement is advised of school plans through a computer portal. But the auditors said access to the portal wasn’t always reliable.
  • Of 14 public school districts examined, 12 didn’t have evidence of a 30-day comment period for their district plan, 10 didn’t complete annual staff training, and nine didn’t include at least one of the required representatives on their safety team. Among the nine safety teams that lacked some required representatives, two failed to include school safety personnel, six didn’t include a school board representative, and five didn’t have parent or teacher representatives.
  • Of 779 URLs emailed to the Education Department that were supposed to link to emergency plans, 555 URLs didn’t link to a plan. Of the 555 URLs, 406 linked to general sites, 129 were no longer operational, and 20 were otherwise broken.
  • The Education Department never issued a report on compliance with the SAVE Act to the governor and Legislature as required so they could consider improvements or corrections. The department now agrees to do so.

The state Education Department recently received a five-year School Emergency Management Grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will be used in part to hire a full-time person to improve emergency response planning, DiNapoli said.

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