William J. Connell, Esq. M.Ed. Attorney at Law North Smithfield.
Former Chairperson of the North Smithfield School Committee
During the Rhode Island General Assembly's 2016 legislative session, a number of education-related bills were passed. In some cases, these have a significant impact on daily activity in schools, including, but not limited to, instruction, curriculum, and discipline issues. Many bills will directly impact the current 2016-2017 school year, and that warrants a review and discussion of those addressing the day-to-day operations of elementary, middle, and secondary schools, as opposed to legislation dealing with post-secondary schools, the establishment or expansion of charter schools or other schools, and school funding, which, while very important, are worthy of a separate examination. All the bills noted below took effect upon passage and are effective now, except where noted otherwise.
Extended/free-play recess for students in grades K-6
A new section of the General Laws, § 16-22-4.2, entitled "Free-play recess," provides that free-play recess is now a mandated requirement in public schools for certain grades. Any child enrolled in a public school that has elementary grades kindergarten to grade six, must receive "at least twenty consecutive minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each day."1 The new statute provides that free-play recess can be counted and considered instructional time for any schools that would otherwise be required to extend their school day to meet the provisions of this law.2
Education - Children with disabilities -Duty to pay
R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-24-1, entitled "Duty of school committee to provide special education," was amended to address the issue of funding of certain post-secondary or transitional programs for students who turn twenty-one during the school year. The amendment provides that if a child with a disability is enrolled in such a pro- gram and the child turns twenty-one years of age while enrolled in the program during the school year, the school committee or local education agency must continue to pay for such child's participation in the program through to the conclusion of the school or program's academic year. In other words, if the child with special education needs is in a transitional program and turns twenty-one years of age during the school year, the school district cannot withdraw funds when the child turns twenty-one, but must continue to pay until the school year is completed.3
Health and safety of students -Allergic emergencies
R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-21-22 insures that schools are being equipped with the proper tools and skills to assess and solve issues of anaphylaxis in students of elementary and secondary schools. In 2016, that statute was amended to expand the availability of epinephrine. Specifically, the amendments provide that school departments may allow schools "within their jurisdiction to maintain epinephrine in cartridge injections for the purpose of emergency first aid to students who are experiencing allergic reactions."4 The amendment also directs that school departments' policies address the storage and administration of epinephrine, bearing in mind that this drug is often administered as part of emergency first aid.5
Health and safety of pupils -Automatic external defibrillators
The General Assembly also added a new section, R.I. Gen. Laws § 16-21-33.1, entitled "Automatic external defibrillators." In this statute, the General Assembly made several key findings of fact regarding the use of automatic external defibrillators. These included that, while it is difficult to obtain clear numbers on the number of children who will suffer sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), some experts estimate the number of deaths among those aged twenty-one and under at three hundred per year. However, if defibrillation is administered within five to seven minutes of the onset of SCA, then the chances of survival are increased by forty-nine percent.6 Based on those findings, the legislature passed new requirements that all high schools and middle schools, public and private, maintain on school grounds, functional, automated defibrillators (AED) in amounts the commissioner of education determines adequate. In addition, during school and school functions, including athletic contests held at any location, schools must "ensure the presence of at least one person who is properly trained in the operation and use of an AED."7The training must be given by appropriately qualified personnel, such as employees of the municipality's police and fire departments. This particular act does not take effect until August 1, 2017.8
Right to a safe school
The General Laws already provide that every student, staff member, teacher and administrator has a right to attend...