Parents want to know that their child’s public school is keeping students safe. And with reports of school shootings and other emergencies on the rise, safety procedures and protocols are of the utmost importance. But even with growing concerns for student safety, it can be difficult to know what safety protocols are in place. Parents have the power to ask their schools for this information and to get answers, thanks to public records laws. Here’s how you can find out what safety standards are currently in place in schools, how to get that information, what questions to ask, and what to do if you don’t get answers.
For two years, Terrie Chumchal’s 13-year-old son suffered bullying from other students at his Texas school, much of it on account of his Korean-American heritage. One horrifying assault even left her son with a ruptured eardrum. Like any good mom, Terrie wants to keep her son safe, so she started asking the school district some very simple questions. But the school district refused to answer unless Terrie paid thousands of dollars in fees — even though they’re required to answer those questions under the law.
Terrie asked the Joshua Independent School District how widespread the bullying problem was. She submitted a public records request for the number of bullying, incident, assault, police, and grievance reports filed with the district between 2015 and 2022. In response, the district’s lawyers told Terrie that accessing this simple information would cost $7,111.12 in public records fees. That’s against the law, so Terrie got help from a volunteer attorney with the Goldwater Institute.
"Parents shouldn’t have to pay thousands of dollars just to access simple information about what’s happening in their children’s schools,” her attorney Warren Norred says. “Texas law is clear on the matter—and I intend to fight this excessive public records fee and defend Terrie’s right to access public information."
Unfortunately, Terrie’s case isn’t unusual. School districts around the country charge outrageous public records fees to scare parents away from asking about what’s happening in their children’s schools. But parents have the right to ask questions and to receive answers.
Terrie just wants to keep her son safe — and she wants answers from the school district.
“We deserve to have insight as to how significant these issues are within our district,” Terrie said. “Don’t I have the right to know what’s going on in my own child’s public school?”
Safety and security measures at public schools have become more prevalent in recent years, according to the School Survey on Crime and Safety1. These measures include:
But as a parent, you might not have any idea which of these measures your child’s school is using, if any at all. But there’s a way you can find out, thanks to public records request laws.
It might surprise you to learn that school safety procedures can be different in every school, in every city, and in every state in the country. There isn’t one national standard, and states and school districts are free to set their own policies. Generally, safety and security programs are divided into three main categories:
Efforts like anti-bullying campaigns that aim to create more secure and safe school settings.
Mitigation & Response:
Programs that attempt to reduce school violence and prepare institutions for rapid response to security incidents.
Processes designed to help students and communities recover from traumatic events.
In 2020, the federal government launched SchoolSafety.gov, a central hub of resources for k-12 parents, educators, and law enforcement. The site addresses various threats related to safety, security and support in public schools across the country.
Parents and administrators can access free information, events, and tools on various school safety topics on demand.
As a parent, you have the right to ask questions – and get answers – from public schools regarding safety and security.
State laws give citizens the right to obtain public information from state and local governments, including public school districts. These public record laws give parents the power to request valuable information about how the districts are being run and how they’re keeping records.
It might feel intimidating to call up or walk into your child’s school to request records, but it’s completely within your rights. Here is a list of questions you can potentially ask to obtain more information about school safety and security.
A school district should generally respond to your request promptly, however, that time varies by state. Some state public records laws say “a reasonable amount of time.” Other state laws might say “within 10 days” or identify a specific deadline. A school district may also respond by saying that a request will cost money — in some cases, a small amount for the cost of copies, for example. That’s reasonable. But if a fee demand is excessive, you should review your state’s law here. If you believe your right to access public information may have been violated, you can contact the Goldwater Institute for assistance. Please be prepared to send the original records request, the district’s response, and any communications between you and the district.
You have the right to receive a transparent response in accordance with state law. Public records must be made available to parents and provided in a reasonable amount of time. If you’ve been denied records, please contact Goldwater Institute.
Federal, state, and local governments have a responsibility to protect students in public schools. Parents can and should hold our school districts accountable for maintaining proper records, policies, and procedures to keep students safe. Let’s keep our schools accountable for protecting our children.