MOUNT VERNON — After hearing that a firearm registered with Highland Local Schools’ safety program was left unattended on campus grounds, parents questioned the school board on why the incident was never reported to local law enforcement.
Highland’s school board and administration stated that the school safety policy would be changed so that any further incidents would be reported to the police. The reality is that there are very few rules about what schools are required to report.
“Schools have got a lot of discretion as to when to get law enforcement involved,” said Chip McConville, Knox County Prosecutor.
All school employees are mandatory reporters under Ohio law, which means they are obligated to report known or suspected cases of child abuse and neglect to their local child protective services agency. It is up to the local child protective services agency to decide whether or not to involve law enforcement.
If a principal finds out that a student commits a serious offense, such as illicit drug use, inappropriate use of weapons or other criminal activity, state law requires that he or she report it to the superintendent within one day. It’s up to administrators to determine whether or not incidents are reported to law enforcement.
“There are things that we feel it necessary to report,” said Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder. “If we have anything that involves drugs, weapons and threats to student safety, we immediately involve law enforcement.”
In less extreme situations, school administrators will often conduct threat assessments or investigations. Sometimes, they rely on guidance from school resource officers to decide when it would be appropriate to involve local law enforcement.
“School resource officers really help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the schools,” stated McConville. “They can work in tandem with administrators to determine ‘Is this a school matter?’ ‘Is this a law enforcement matter?’ ‘Should it be both?’”
The key question administrators must consider when deciding whether or not to share student information with law enforcement is whether the situation meets the exception criteria under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to this federal law, a student’s disciplinary and health records are not considered public and cannot be released to law enforcement, except in the case of health or safety emergencies.
“They can’t give law enforcement or anyone else information (that could be identifiable) unless there’s some threat,” said Knox County Probate/Juvenile Court Judge Jay Nixon. “They are able to breach that confidentiality if there is an articulable and significant threat to the health or safety of students.”
School resource officers can only be granted access to student data for school safety purposes or criminal investigations.
“If they are investigating … then we will give them the information they need to complete that investigation,” said Jason Snively, superintendent of Danville Local Schools. He noted that school resource officers are not involved in carrying out or documenting regular school discipline.
“Typically they won’t be brought into any situation unless it’s a criminal offense,” he said.
One thing schools are required to disclose to law enforcement are emergency management plans. Ohio law states that these plans must be developed with community law enforcement and safety officials, parents of students who are assigned to the building, and teachers and non-teaching employees who are assigned to the building.
The plans must outline protocols for a range of emergency situations, including mental health incidents, bomb threats, the presence of an active shooter, school bus accidents, explosions, fires, floods, intruders, medical emergencies and even terrorism. Emergency management plans must be made available to local law enforcement, but not to the public.
The goal of having these plans in place is that school officials won’t be caught off guard and will have a system to follow if an emergency were to take place.
“It provides some guidance for us on the things that we certainly don’t want to overlook,” Seder said. “When you set these in place outside of a dynamic situation, you do that not in the heat of the moment so that when we get to those real challenging situations we can fall back on the training that we’ve had and the plans to make sure we’re dotting all our i’s and crossing all our t’s.”
“We can’t always be prepared for every situation but we can hopefully prepare ourselves for how we react to every situation,” added Snively. “Our big thing is that we have to be prepared to think on our feet and be prepared for any situation that comes our way.”
While emergency management plans are not made available to the public, most other school board-approved policies are. A school district’s policies are typically available on its website under the board of education section.
These policies govern everything from expectations of staff and students to school finances to harassment, intimidation and bullying.
The Ohio Revised Code defines harassment, intimidation and bullying as any intentional written, verbal, electronic or physical act that causes mental or physical harm and is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment.
Schools must also have procedures in place for reporting such incidents between students. Policies must also be in place outlining how the school will respond to, investigate and document such incidents.
While schools can’t release individual student records to the public, district administrators are required by law to provide the president of the school board with a written summary of all reported incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying between students twice a year. Districts are also required to post a summary of this report on their district websites. Due to student privacy concerns, this is often simply the number of incidents that occurred.