Public safety in the United States is defined and experienced differently for Black and Brown families than it is for white ones. The use of law enforcement to ensure “public safety” equates to harm and death for members of Black and Brown communities.
Safety from catastrophic events, such as a mass shooting that occurs at school, is critically important. A very real concern about such events has spawned a series of “solutions” to prevent them, some of which will not make schools safer, but will instead seriously harm certain children and their families.
The very concept of “threat assessment” as it is actually implemented, turns the goal of school safety on its head by encouraging school officials to see the students themselves as potential dangers to the school community, rather than valued community members and children worthy of protection. Within that lens, not all students are viewed equally.
It is important to be clear what we mean by “threat assessment,” because how it is described in literature and what occurs in the field are drastically different things. In practice, threat assessment most often consists of a meeting between a law enforcement officer, and one or two school staff. These staff are generally the administrator in charge of school discipline and a school counselor or teacher. This team evaluates a situation, as described below, and makes a recommendation regarding discipline for the student. School staff have shared with advocates that they do not feel comfortable speaking up in the presence of the law enforcement officer, and that the meeting generally goes in the direction the officer recommends. Parents and school staff who know the child personally are often not consulted at all.
There are layers of protection against discrimination that threat assessment as it is commonly implemented, tears away.
- It places law enforcement directly into the life of the student and into what are often mundane discipline situations, in place of decision making by trained educators.
- It provides a functional end run around legal/civil rights protections for children that are necessary to prevent discrimination.
- It may be used as a way to suspend and remove children “off the books,” without the legally required due process intended to prevent incorrect discipline decisions (e.g. caused by insufficient evidence or unsubstantiated reports).
- It sidesteps school discipline codes that have been developed specifically to prevent the kind of subjective decision making that opens the door to bias and discrimination. Some school districts have intentionally developed discipline codes that provide these protections.
For students who experience frustration, loneliness, or bullying at school, school counseling, intervention by a caring adult and the involvement of the IEP team (when appropriate) are better solutions than involving law enforcement. If a child’s behavior truly presents a danger, law enforcement is never prevented from intervening to protect school safety.
Even when it does not result in a suspension or other discipline, the threat assessment process itself has negative consequences for students, such as:
- A report that remains in the student’s school records regardless of the outcome;
- Significant intrusion into the child and family’s private information and private lives;
- Financial burden as families are asked to pay for evaluations and to miss work to cooperate with the collection of records and interviews; and
- Educational disruption as families must often homeschool or find a separate placement for the child during the evaluation process.
The process places a huge burden of stress, time and worry upon the child and family.
In practice threat assessment is not a benign method to prevent more severe discipline, nor is it needed to provide children with services. Threat assessments of this type provide a way for law enforcement to intervene directly into a student’s education and the lives of their family members.
Threat assessments can result in:
- Profiling of and discrimination against Black and Brown students, and children with disabilities, especially those who are multi-marginalized.
- Inappropriate sharing of private student information with law enforcement, increasing the already outsized role of law enforcement in the lives of students and their families.
- Long-term educational consequences impacting future opportunities and unfair labeling and stigma for the student.
- Compounding the trauma that students and families who have had negative interactions with law enforcement have experienced, both personally and intergenerationally.
- Discriminatory discipline and inappropriate arrests or referrals to law enforcement, immigration authorities or child protective services.
- “Mission creep,” by purporting to solve a series of social and educational problems that go beyond protecting school communities from serious threats of violence. These social and educational problems already have effective, evidence-based solutions that are underfunded and underutilized.
- Draining resources (funds and staff time) from school districts and communities.
Threat assessment teams, in some places, have become “judge, jury, and executioner,” going far beyond a role of assessing risk of serious imminent harm, to determining guilt and specifying punishment. In this way, they defeat legally required civil rights protections, usurping the role of education, mental health — including counselors, psychologists, etc., from diverse and culturally relevant backgrounds — and other professionals. Threat assessments can fracture important bonds and relationships of trust that are essential for families to access school-based supports and resources, as they situate the school in opposition to a student.
Here are some real-life examples
- An elementary student with a disability made a non-specific threat to bring a weapon to school. The threat was an expected manifestation of his disability, and it was not possible for him to act on it due to his disability.
His parents immediately offered to:
- Permit the district to search him and any possible storage spaces he used daily.
- Provide a clear plastic backpack for anything he needed to carry.
- Cut the pockets from all of his pants.
The threat assessment team, which did not include any professionals knowledgeable about disability, insisted that the family agree to a search of the family home. The child’s parents were shocked and refused. The child remained out of school for months while this situation was resolved. He did not receive any education or behavior-related services while he was out.
- A 10th grade student with a disability was excluded from school indefinitely pending the results of a “threat assessment” that the school district required his parent to get at her own expense, causing him to miss almost an entire month of school.
It had been alleged that the student made a threat to a teacher and students. He was not officially suspended, but the school told his parent that he could not return to school until he got a mental health assessment. Due to confusion on the school’s part about the type of evaluation needed (the school used psychological evaluation, mental health assessment, and threat assessment interchangeably), limited access to in-person testing opportunities because of COVID-19, and the parent’s lack of transportation, it took almost two weeks for the evaluation to be completed.
Even after receiving a copy of the evaluation, it took over a week for the school to allow the student to return to school, even though there was no reason to believe that he was dangerous. The student missed almost an entire month of school and did not receive the services outlined in his IEP during this time. Because he was never technically suspended, he did not receive the discipline protections under federal and state education laws related to disability, nor the benefit of the due process right to appeal a long-term suspension required by state and federal law.
In response to a complaint, the state department of education found the school district violated state and federal disability law.
- In Tampa, Florida, based on interviews from families across Tampa Bay, threat assessment results in intrusive and harmful involuntary hospitalization.
“Families across Tampa Bay who said their children have been placed under the Baker Act for behavior that alarmed police but is, for those children, normal….Deputies in Pasco check the credibility of every threat a student makes, said Lt. Troy Fergueson, who oversees those who work in schools. They visit the child’s home, talk to parents, look for means and take note of the conditions. But that doesn’t always happen before the Baker Act is invoked. The timing depends on multiple factors, like the severity and specificity of the threat and the age of the student, Fergueson said. The problem is compounded by the fact that resources aren’t always available to kids who need mental health care but not hospitalization.”