Oregon schools may be required to electronically notify families, employees of threats

A legislative proposal would require schools to alert parents, guardians and employees of safety threats

By: - March 27, 2023 6:00 am

A bill in the state Legislature would require school administrators to inform parents of an emergency. (Getty Images)

UPDATED on Monday March 27, 2023 at 4 p.m. with committee vote

Locking doors. Slamming window blinds. Teachers telling students to be quiet and hide under desks. As Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, put it: “This isn’t a quote from a George Orwell book. This is a reality for many students.”

Oregon lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and in the House and Senate, are concerned about families getting real-time, accurate information when an emergency takes place in K-12 schools. 

Though most districts have some procedure in place, none is currently mandated by the state.

House Bill 3584 would direct schools or school districts to provide electronic communication to parents, guardians and school employees about safety threats. The state House Committee on Education unanimously passed the bill Monday on a 6-0 vote, with Democratic Rep. Hoa Nguyen of Damascus excused. It needs to be passed by the full House before consideration by the Senate. 

“It breaks my heart that we even have to have this conversation,” Ruiz, one of the bill’s four chief sponsors, told the committee last week. “Yet, the reality is that we as a state need to do a better job.”

The bill coincides with a rise in school-targeted violence. There were 46 shootings nationwide at K-12 schools in 2022, surpassing the prior year’s record of 42, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Millions of students across the country experience at least one lockdown a year. 

The bill instructs the Oregon Department of Education to develop a process in which schools can electronically notify individuals within 24 hours of an event about ongoing lockdowns, how long it took to resolve the issue and other essential information. 

Ruiz doesn’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach, he said, but rather, he would like the state to work with districts to adopt a process that works for each of them. 

Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, served as a sergeant with the Portland Police Bureau for 25 years and worked with school resource officers on emergency response. When testifying in favor of the bill, he cautioned lawmakers against using this mandate for all drill information as people could become immune to checking notifications. 

Instead, he said to think of it like an AMBER Alert, for which there are set criteria for how and when information goes out.   

Ruiz said some districts, such as Beaverton School District, already have adopted communication policies, and states including Louisiana, Washington and Texas have considered or passed similar laws.

But Ruiz doesn’t want to wait for individual districts to catch up. 

“I want to be clear this is not against any particular school,” he added. “This is a safety-first policy.”

Lockdown trauma

Seventh-grader Jim Chambers remembers being in his language arts class at Lane Middle School in southeast Portland on Feb. 3 when it went into lockdown. They’d just finished a quiz, he said, when he heard “Lock. Lights. Out of sight” over the loudspeaker, indicating an active threat in the building. 

“Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been scared,” Jim testified; he would have thought it was a drill. “But the look on the teacher’s face said otherwise.”

The students were told to get under their desks, he said. He heard doors opening and slamming. 

Jim texted his mom and asked her to pray for him.

“If I die,” he wrote, “here are my last words. ‘I hope the world is better with me in it than without.’” 

Texts from Jim Chambers
Seventh-grader Jim Chambers texted his mom during a lockdown at Lane Middle School in southeast Portland on Feb. 3, 2023. (Submitted with written testimony)

Jim’s father, Eric Chambers, took him out of school early that day once the lockdown was lifted. Eric emailed school and district officials, asking what happened, and said he did not get a response, though he has since heard from some teachers. He filed a public records request within a week of the incident and, as of Friday, is still waiting for the results. 

“As a parent, your heart sinks. Lockdowns are a reality, but without knowing the circumstances that cause them, there is no way to help set our children’s minds at ease,” Chambers said in written testimony. “My pre-teen son thought his story might end that day. There was nothing I could say to make it better.”

Chambers said most of these situations are “much ado about nothing” and that schools are taking appropriate security precautions. But he told the Capital Chronicle he hopes the bill will establish a clear, uniform, statewide policy to help ensure future communication is quick and streamlined.

Valerie Feder, director of media relations for Portland Public Schools, told the Capital Chronicle that officials found a “system glitch” that prevented a draft email about the incident from going out to families. This is the first time the district has acknowledged not alerting parents about the incident, Chambers said. 

Feder said the lockdown was triggered when a teacher saw an unidentified male in a hallway. The lockdown lasted 15 minutes and the male turned out to be part of a group of high schoolers returning to visit their former teachers.

“PPS has a proven track record of contacting families within hours of enhanced security actions,” Feder said in an email. 

Feder said the district is committed to student and staff safety and will continue to work with city, county and state leaders on this topic. But she indicated the district opposes the proposal since it “essentially requires schools to do what is already being done.”

“We would support a bill that focuses on reducing gun violence in our community instead of one that legislates how we should react to it,” she wrote. 

The bill’s supporters said the requirement should not burden schools. Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said officials could notify families by using the same systems they already have to notify families of cancellations or weather cancellations, for example. 

“As a mother, I cannot fathom the reality where my child would be involved in a lockdown at their school, and I don’t know about it until I read about it in a news report (or on) social media,” she said, “(The) most troubling is when your child comes home from school, you ask the question, ‘How was your (day)?’ and you’re hit with, ‘We were in a lockdown.’

“Students deserve to go to school in peace,” Webber added. “Unfortunately, bad people do bad things, and when those bad things do happen, parents have the right to know what the situation is every step of the way.”

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Natalie Pate
Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.