AUGUSTA – About 40 percent of Maine’s 177 school districts do not have a written crisis plan as required by state law – a very disturbing statistic, said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, who pledged Wednesday to help districts meet the law.
“Last year, about forty percent of the districts reported they did not have a plan,” she said Wednesday. “The law says they must have a plan and report to us every year as part of the annual school approval form.”
Gendron said she is “troubled” by the statistics and said the state may ask for actual copies of plans to assure they meet basic standards. The school approval form simply requires a statement that they have a plan, not any of its details.
Current law requires each school board annually to “approve a plan developed by the school unit administration working with local public safety, mental health and law enforcement officials to deal with crises and potential crisis situations involving violent acts by or against students in each school in the school administrative unit.”
Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said he was surprised and concerned at the level of noncompliance with the law. He said from his conversations with administrators across the state that there has been a high level of awareness of the issues around school security and the need to plan for any crisis.
“I don’t think school systems have ever lost sight of the fact that these tragedies have been occurring, albeit not with the currency we have been seeing in the last few weeks,” he said. “So a forty percent number frankly does surprise me.”
Douglass said his group has co-sponsored a statewide conference with the Department of Education on dealing with violence in the schools that provided several workshops and training opportunities. He said his group provides help with developing plans when requested by local districts, but does not have a “model plan” for schools to use.
“The law really requires these be developed locally,” he said, “based on the individualistic needs of the district.”
Gendron said most of the school districts that have indicated they do not have plans are the state’s smaller districts. She said such districts may believe that they are too small and rural to have a violent incident occur so the crisis plans are not a priority.
“I would hope what happened [in rural Pennsylvania] this week will serve as a wake-up call,” she said.
One person not surprised at the statistic is Rep. Jacqueline Norton, D-Bangor. The co-chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee said lawmakers have been able to pass legislation dealing with some violence issues in the schools, like legislation dealing with bullying.
“Where is the enforcement mechanism?” she questioned. “What happens when the schools don’t follow the law is not much because there are no sanctions in the law.”
Norton said the state could consider withholding school approval or some sort of monetary sanction in the school funding law, but she does not like the “punitive” approach. She said the public should demand their local schools develop the plans required by law.
Norton, a retired teacher, said when she was teaching in the Brewer school system there had been several training sessions on the school crisis plan. She believes most large schools have plans required by law and have tested them.
“We will be working with districts to provide them the technical assistance they might need to develop these plans,” Gendron said, “but we need to validate and ensure that there is a plan in every school system.”