The murder of 20 elementary school children in Newton, Connecticut in December 2012 reignited public discourse regarding how school districts might best protect students in crisis situations, including nation-wide debate as to whether public school administrators and/or teachers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons on school campuses. Presently, school districts across South Carolina are taking steps to examine their emergency procedures, safety programs, and facility security measures to ensure that their schools are protected and that their crisis plans are well-coordinated.
Each individual school district should be familiar with its community and students, including, at least to some degree, the type of threats a school might face. While it may be tempting for all school districts to take a hard-line approach in response to recent events, school districts should instead approach their specific circumstances in reviewing and updating existing safety and emergency plans, relationships and communications with law enforcement and emergency response agencies, as well as the security of their facilities. This review should include not only crisis measures in the event of an armed intruder, but also may provide an opportune time for districts to review their existing safety plans related to weather or other disasters. In light of the recent focus on school security, school districts should determine if the preventative focus is on external threats (intruders unaffiliated with the school), internal threats from students and staff, or both. For external concerns, school districts should review the state of their building security, including, but not limited to, doors and windows that are locked from the outside; keycard systems; staffed sign-in or visitor checkpoints; visitor identification badges; video surveillance; and the need for on-campus armed security, such as school resource officers. Moreover, both school and outside emergency personnel should be well-informed and well-practiced in the event of a security breach or emergency. Regarding potential internal threats, schools may also wish to review their approach to student bullying, including cyber-bullying, disciplinary procedures, use of metal detectors, student searches, background checks for volunteers, and student access and referral to mental health services.
South Carolina school districts should be aware of legislation recently introduced by members of our General Assembly, which, if passed into law, may require changes to district policies, procedures, and operations as they relate to school resource officers, lockdown plans, and the carrying of firearms on school grounds by school employees. In fact, some seven bills dealing directly with school safety are currently pending before the Legislature. These bills include:
• Senate Bill 162 - permits any school to establish an elective, one-semester course in firearm marksmanship, which course must include specific components, including instruction on firearm operations and safety, constitutional and historical elements of firearms, and practice time at a shooting range.
• Senate Bill 249 - requires the General Assembly to appropriate sufficient funding to school districts to employ at least one school resource officer for each public school. In addition, the proposed bill would remove any discretion a county/city/town may have in granting a school district's request for a school resource officer and requiring the county/city/town to provide a school district the number of School resource officers requested by the school district and subject to school district providing the requisite funds.
• House Bill 3237 – requires school districts to request school resource officer for each school and for that officer to be on campus during all regular hours. If the officer s not present during regular operating hours or absent, the school must notify law enforcement, who must dispatch an officer to the school. Similar to S.249, this bill also requires a county/city/town to provide a school resource officer if requested, but does not address funding.
• House Bill 3364 - mandates each school district develop a lockdown plan for each school, with specific provisions about what each plan should include and parent notification of that plan.
• House Bill 3365- requires each school to employ a school psychologist on a full-time basis to help identify and address mental health needs of students. No funding provision is included
Each of these bills raise questions and concerns regarding implementation on the local level. The size, location, and layout of a particular school will likely drive the number of school resource officers needed. For example, do a small elementary school and a small middle school, located beside each other or even on the same campus, need a separate officer? How will schools monitor the location of a school resource officer to ensure their "continuous presence," and what impact will that have on the relationship between the school and law enforcement? Do the lock-down requirements set forth in the proposed legislation match the needs of particular school districts or provide necessary discretion to school and district administrators? Regarding school psychologists, even if the role of a school psychologist is to address non-educational mental health issues, increasing the number of school psychologists required across the state may prove impossible for a position that is already difficult to fill.
In addition to the bills discussed above, the proposed laws that have elicited the most debate relate to the presence of firearms on school grounds. In that regard, it should be noted that, under existing law, school officials may provide permission for an employee who has a concealed weapons permit (CWP) to bring their firearm onto campus. In addition, most school resource officers carry weapons, as may any law enforcement officer who enters school premises. However, recent legislation, as introduced by members of our General Assembly, would expand that authority to all holders of a CWP, including school employees. Among the most controversial is Senate Bill 242, which would remove from SC law an existing requirement that persons with a CWP must store their firearm within the locked compartment of a vehicle when that vehicle comes onto school grounds. In short, pursuant to this Bill, visitors who have a CWP would not be required to obtain permission from school officials before carrying a concealed weapon onto school grounds. Further, House Bill 3160 would allow school employees who have a CWP to carry a firearm onto school grounds, provided the employee keeps the weapon on his/her person and concealed when not in use, that the employee uses specified bullets, and that the employee provides notice of his/her ability to carry a weapon to school administration. This bill also provides limited grounds on which a district could deny the employee the authority to bring their firearm onto school grounds.
While arguments are made in favor of armed classroom teachers and administration, both as a preventative measure and as a means to stop armed intruders, security experts and our own Director of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) question the advisability of arming as many adults in a school as possible. Both from a practical standpoint, as well as in considering a district's potential liability, districts must consider that arming staff who have minimal training may result in accidental shootings, shots that hit the wrong target, incidents where students forcibly take a weapon from an employee, and other such unintended consequences may serve as a deterrent.
If you have any questions regarding your district's policies and procedures as they relate to this issue, please do not hesitate to contact
As the clock ticked down to the end of the legislative session, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted or amended several laws impacting school districts. These laws affect student extracurricular activities, charter schools, and teacher salaries. In news from the court system, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued a decision interpreting the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as it applies to agendas for meetings of public bodies, including school boards.
This year, following several failed attempts to mandate participation of home-schooled and charter school students in public school extracurricular activities, the General Assembly passed the "Equal Access to Interscholastic Activities Act." S.C. Code 59-63-100. The Act, in conjunction with amendments to the Charter School Act, provides the following opportunities for students.
Home-schooled students have the same opportunity as their peers to participate in "interscholastic activities" in their resident district;
Governor's School students have the same opportunity as their peers to participate in "interscholastic activities" not offered by the Governor's School but available at the school whose attendance boundaries encompass the Governor School they attend; and
Charter school students are eligible to participate in any extracurricular activities available at his or her zoned/home school but not offered by the charter school.
To qualify for participation, these students must meet the school district eligibility requirements and provide specified documentation certifying eligibility, except that home-schooled and Governor's school students will not be held to the district's school or class attendance requirements or class and enrollment requirements of governing interscholastic associations. These students also are required to meet the same standards for acceptance regarding a team/squad/activity and also are obligated to fulfill the same behavior and performance requirements, including practice requirements, as other participating students. In addition, interested home-school and Governor's school students must provide written notice to the district superintendent of their intent to participate in a specific interscholastic activity prior to the beginning of the relevant season.
Unlike prior versions of the bill, the Equal Access to Interscholastic Activities Act does not prohibit a non-public school student from displacing a district-enrolled student from a team or activity. As a result, school districts likely will receive complaints from parents of district students who do not "make the team" due to the participation of these newly included participants, as well as from parents of home-schooled and charter school students who believe their students are being unfairly excluded from a team or activity. Therefore, it is imperative that school districts adopt written policies and procedures clearly defining the activities it considers as interscholastic extracurricular activities and the requirements for participation in those activities.
The Act defines interscholastic activities as including, but not limited to, "athletics, music, speech and other extracurricular activities." Although the Legislature did not provide further guidance on the type of activities in which Governor's School and home-schooled students may participate, this definition appears to envision participation in competitive extracurricular activities. Additionally, the Charter School Act extends charter school students the opportunity to participate in "any extracurricular activities" not offered by the charter school, which appears to include school-based, rather than just competitive, activities.or procedure what the district considers to be an interscholastic extracurricular activity and a school-based extracurricular activity. For example, will the district define school-based extracurricular activities in a manner that excludes activities traditionally considered to be school-based representative positions, such as beauty pageants and student council? Does the district's definition of interscholastic or school-based extracurricular activities encompass activities, clubs, and competition teams that are generally associated with mandatory participation in a Carnegie credit-bearing course during the instructional day (i.e., Band to join Marching Band; ROTC to participate in Drill Team; Chorus to participate in Competition Show Choir) and, if so, how will the district handle course enrollment or practice requirements for participating non-enrolled students? Districts also should be prepared to respond to parental requests for non-enrolled students to participate in "athletics" or "music" courses solely for instruction or Carnegie credit, rather than in an associated extracurricular activity. In addition, while districts also should include in policy the general requirements for any student's participation in defined extracurricular activities, including general behavioral requirements, each sponsor, coach, and advisor of defined extracurricular activities must be prepared to clearly articulate all requirements for participation in specific extracurricular activities or groups, including performance, behavior, academics, and practice requirements. We understand that the South Carolina School Boards Association is in the process of developing a draft model policy that will likely serve as a substantial starting point for school boards implementing policies to address these new requirements.
As in years past, this term the Legislature continued to make changes to the South Carolina Charter School Act, S.C. Code Ann. 59-40-10 et. seq. Among the most publicized amendments include confirmation that a sponsor may seek to form single gender charter schools and the ability of public and independent institutions of higher learning to sponsor charter schools. In addition, the Act created a loan program for charter schools to use toward the construction, purchase, renovation, or maintenance of public charter school facilities and implemented a process to ensure that the local legislative delegation is advised of charter school applications. In addition to those changes that affect local and state sponsored charter schools, school districts should be aware of several amendments to situations where the local school district (1) presently sponsors a charter school; (2) receives an application for local sponsorship (3) anticipates a charter school conversion or a request to explore innovative programs outside of a charter school.For local school districts presently sponsoring a charter school, there are several changes that should be noted. First, the amendments revise the manner in which specific funds are distributed by the local school district, including the requirement that funds associated with student growth are distributed within 30 days after receipt and that disbursement of the charter school's proportionate share of specified federal and state funds occurs within 10 business days. Moreover, the amendments increase and further describe the statutorily required reporting requirements of sponsored charter schools and also include a statutory release of district liability for sponsored charter school operations. As to any new charter school applications that a local school district receives, the deadline for ruling on the application has been extended from 30 days to 45 days.In addition, the Charter School Act now requires the charter school and school district sponsor to complete and execute a contract, separate and apart from the application. By outlining the parties' responsibilities and expectations prior to opening, these contracts will likely help identify and address areas of concern earlier in the process. Lastly, additional provisions regarding the charter school conversion process and resulting rights are addressed in the amendments. The current voting process remains in place, but is subject to District Board approval in circumstances where there is general obligation bond debt less than 10 years old related to the school. The amendments also provide converted charter schools the right to remain in the building and use, at no charge, all facilities, equipment, furniture, and supplies that were available to it prior to conversion.
During the most recent legislative session, the General Assembly passed several pieces of legislation concerning personnel matters, including extensions to induction level contract periods, mandated salary and step increases for certified teachers, reforms to the South Carolina Retirement System, and elimination to the TERI program.S.C. Code 59-26-40 was revised to extend the induction contract period from one year to three years. While a teacher may work on an induction contract for up to three years, the school district must either provide an annual contract or terminate the employee by the end of the three year induction period. Unlike the previous statute, which allowed a terminated induction contract teacher to seek employment at the annual contract level, new amendments provide that the terminated employee must seek employment at the induction contract level. The amendments specify, however, that a person cannot be employed on an induction contract for more than three years.As widely discussed in the news, the General Assembly also mandated salary and step increases for all certified teachers in a budget proviso from the 2012-2013 General Appropriations Bill. Proviso 1A.56 requires the State Department of Education to increase the 2008-2009 statewide salary schedule by 2 percent and similarly requires local school districts to provide all certified teachers paid pursuant to the salary schedule a 2 percent increase based on the district salary schedule from 2011-2012. Additionally, local school districts must provide all eligible certified teachers a salary step increase equal to one year of experience credit, again based on the district salary schedule from 2011-2012. While additional funds have been provided by the state to assist in providing the step increase, school districts may still apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver from the salary step increase requirement if providing a step increase will cause the district to incur a deficit. However, the State Board will not grant a waiver from the step increase requirement if it determines that the deficit is a result of salary increases to employees other than those paid on the teacher salary schedule.The General Assembly also made significant changes to the South Carolina Retirement System as part of a "reform bill," including amendments addressing new members, employee contributions, retirees' return to work, and elimination of the TERI program,. Currently, a participant in the SCRS must have 28 years of service to quality for full retirement benefits. The amendments create a new class of beneficiaries for those joining the SCRS after June 30, 2012. The new participants do not qualify for full retirement benefits until the person's age and service years equal 90. Also, new participants will have their final compensation calculated differently and will not become vested in the system for 8 yearsincrease from the five years-to-vest requirement for current participants. As it relates to both current and new members, the employee contribution rate has been increased .5 percent each year over three years, beginning in 2012. The amendments also result in changes for those retirees who return to work. Previously, there was no earning limitations and a 15-day break in service requirement. As a result of the amendments, retirees must be retired for at least 30 consecutive calendar days before they can be hired and return to work covered by the SCRS or its provisions. In addition, unless an exception applies, a retired employee is subject to an earnings cap and cannot earn more than $10,000 in a calendar year, without retirement benefits being discontinued or suspended. The earnings cap does not apply to employees who retire before Jan 2, 2013, retires at or after age 62, or receives compensation as a result of an elected or appointed position. Lastly, amendments to the SCRS phases out TERI, with the program completely eliminated as of June 30, 2018. Employees may continue to participate in TERI; however, those joining after June 30, 2012 must end their participation in the program no later than 5 years or June 30, 2018, whichever is earlier.
Legislators recently proposed a bill that would result in several changes to FOIA, including the length of time a public body has to respond to information requests and the ability to charge for searches. Although this bill ultimately failed and the language of the FOIA law remains the same, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued a decision in June 2013 which may result in changes in how many school boards approach an agenda for their meetings. In that case, Lambries v. Saluda Count,, the Court held that published agendas were required for all regularly scheduled board meetings and that the published agenda generally could not be amended during a meeting without violating FOIA.FOIA states that, as part of the written notice of meetings provided to the public, the "agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted on the bulletin board at the office or meeting place of the public body at least twenty-four hours prior to such a meeting. Such notice must be posted as early as is practicable but not later than twenty-four hours before the meeting. . . This requirement does not apply to emergency meetings of public bodies." To reach its decision that published agendas are required for all regularly scheduled meetings of a public body, the Court determined that construing the language "if any" to mean that a public body is not required to prepare a formal agenda defeats the purpose of FOIA and the legislative intent. Similarly, the Court determined that, while there was no provision in FOIA prohibiting such action, an amendment of the agenda during a regularly scheduled meeting was in violation of the notice requirements of FOIA. In most cases, this decision simply means that boards will need to strictly adhere to the prepared agenda. However, in those situations where an emergency or urgent situation arises between publication of the agenda and a regularly scheduled meeting, boards should discontinue any existing practice of waiting until the meeting to amend the agenda to include consideration of that new or urgent situation. At a minimum, the board should amend the agenda and publish that change as soon as possible prior to the meeting, thereby adhering to the spirit of FOIA to the extent feasible. In addition, depending on the nature of the underlying circumstances, the board may wish to follow procedures for an emergency meeting to be held prior to or after the regularly scheduled meeting; however, any such maneuver should be done in consultation with the district's information officer or legal counsel.Should you have any questions about these legislative changes or need to adopt or revise district procedures in response to same, please feel free to contact us.
School district employees, board members, and even students regularly create and receive vast amounts of documents and other data, much of which is subject to specific rules regarding retention, destruction, and disclosure under various state and federal laws. Therefore, all school districts should develop and implement district-specific record retention procedures, not only to comply with these records laws, but also to ensure that the district is in the best position possible if faced with litigation.