July 25, 2018 Winston: Douglas County Sheriff's deputies are some of the first to arrive during an active shooter training exercise held by the Douglas County Sherriff's Office at Mason Creek Middle School on Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in Winston. The large-scale training drill is meant to test the resources of area law enforcement and emergency responders in an effort to better prepare Douglas County First Responders in the event of a mass casualty active shooter event. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Georgia Legislature passes school security bill

Georgia lawmakers approved legislation Tuesday addressing school security after they were prompted to act by last year’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Senate Bill 15 would require regular threat assessments, safety plan updates and drills in public schools and would ´╗┐mandate and clarify coordination between state agencies and local authorities and schools.

It would also loop the state’s anti-terrorism data analysis agency into the school communications pipeline, encouraging reports on “suspicious” students and others around campus, including anonymous reports through a smartphone app. 

The legislation by Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, was first approved by the Senate in February, weeks after the anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. It then was amended slightly by the House of Representatives late Tuesday, with the Senate approving the changes 42-11 just minutes before the midnight deadline. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp.

SB 15 requires safety plans to be vetted by local law enforcement and filed with the Georgia Department of Education. It requires all public schools to conduct annual “mass casualty” safety drills with local law enforcement. And it adds a new title for principals: “safety coordinator.”

Schools would have to collaborate with local and state authorities, including the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a post-9/11 “fusion center” that is the state’s primary repository for counterterrorism and criminal intelligence information. The agency collects and analyzes data and communications, assessing threats and sharing information with authorities at all levels. It would have to distribute a smartphone app, advertised on campuses and available on school websites, that allows anonymous reporting about.

State police could issue subpoenas without a court order, going through the Georgia attorney general. Phone companies, internet services and other electronic communications providers would be prohibited from telling customers about the subpoena and any records shared.

The goal, said Albers, is to “connect the dots” and “wrap our arms” around homicidal, or suicidal, students. “Sometimes information falls on deaf ears because people are busy and it's just not a focus,” he said at a House Education Committee hearing on his bill last week. The goal is prescience: "trying to stop things before they even happen.”

The inclusion of GISAC, the fusion center, was perhaps the most controversial element of SB 15. School officials with “reasonable suspicion” of student criminal activity would tell law enforcement, and the information would make its way to the agency. That raised concerns about false reports driven by personal animus or by racial or ethnic stereotypes.

Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, said the "reasonable suspicion" standard was "subjective" and "broad.” An immigration attorney, she described a recent community meeting with police where someone asked how to report boys loitering on the street: "That for some is suspicious activity,” she said at the committee hearing. “That for many of us is just boys hanging out."

Priyanka Bhatt, staff attorney for Project South, a social justice group, testified that school staff might over-report minority populations. She also was concerned that undocumented students would get ensnared in the immigration system due to the involvement of the fusion center.

Gone are two elements that produced the biggest pushback last month: one welcoming current or former military or public safety personnel into schools as “safety coaches” and another allowing unfettered collection of data on students.

The House deleted the safety coaches. A Senate committee chaired by Albers stripped the requirement that the state “curate individual student profiles.”

Concerns about privacy, and the reputational damage of false official reports, remained, though.

Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy for the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit think tank in Washington that tracks state legislation, said Georgia’s proposal lacks a  timeline for deleting data collected by the  fusion center. And provisions allowing the data to be shared mean it could haunt innocent kids into adulthood, she said.

The legislation needs a requirement to develop guidelines for when schools should give police federally protected student records about things like disciplinary actions, she said. And it needs a requirement that officials inform parents about why a threat assessment is being done on their child.

The absence of explicit privacy provisions could result in inconsistent protection of student information, Vance said, with school employees making decisions based on their own interpretations of the law. “When privacy isn't built in, you're depending upon people on the ground."

Albers called such criticism “absurd,” saying most of this information is already being reported in a less centralized way. The volunteer firefighter said he believes authorities can safeguard the data and vet it carefully. “When there’s a problem, who does everybody call? 911,” he said. “We trust those folks.”

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