Black students

Here's How 'Threat Assessments' May Be Targeting Vulnerable Students

Last month, the U.S. Secret Service released Protecting America’s Schools, which sends education leaders a clear message: we can prevent school shootings and other targeted school violence if every school in the nation assesses threats potentially posed by students with the help of law enforcement. But they ignore the risks.

These “threat assessments” vary widely, but typically involve a small group of school personnel, including a school police officer, discussing a student whom someone has identified as a potential “threat.” Sometimes the group will speak with students and staff, sometimes they answer pre-determined questions on a form. Using whatever data they gather, the group draws a conclusion about whether the child presents a “threat.”

This may be a well-intentioned effort to fight statistically rare but horrifying school shootings, but its likely effects will push many children of color and children with disabilities out of school, into the school-to-prison pipeline and the school-to-deportation pipeline. Yet this risk has been ignored by federal agencies (the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Education), as well as by states and most school districts.

Jamari Nelson’s Case Shows What Can Go Wrong

A recent "Searchlight NM" article highlights the case of Jamari Nelson, a 50-pound African American first grader with autism. By law, his school should have had a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) in place to guide school staff on how to prevent and respond to problem behaviors related to his disability. But by January 2019, no such plan was in place, even months after Jamari’s parents had shared his diagnosis with the school. 

On January 22, a teaching assistant told Jamari to turn off his game. When he failed to comply, she grabbed the tablet out of his hands, and Jamari’s behavioral problems immediately kicked in. Had a BIP existed for Jamari, it would have predicted these problems and showed the aide how to head them off. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, Jamari picked up some pencils and tried to jab the teaching assistant. Another adult intervened and tried to physically restrain Jamari. He bit her, and then hit a teacher on the head with a whiteboard.

“Everybody back up and nobody gets hurt,” said Jamari, the 50-pound first grader with autism. At one point, Jamari was on the ground, flailing; as the school counselor got close to him, she was kicked in the head. Jamari kept yelling that he just wanted to be alone.

The next day, a threat assessment concluded—with no information taken from or given to Jamari’s parents—that Jamari was a “high level” threat to the school. He was not permitted to return to school. 

In another world, Jamari would have had a BIP that ensured he was given multiple notices of an upcoming change in activity, along with timeframes, as well as instructions to staff NOT to grab things from him and NOT to restrain him. The BIP would also include calming techniques to use if he becomes agitated. As for the school-shooting-and-serious-violence-prevention goal of threat assessments, was Jamari really THAT kind of threat?

How We Got Here on Threat Assessments

In 2013, Virginia became the first state to develop a threat assessment approach. After the 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting, many states passed laws adopting threat assessments, including Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. Some states, like Idaho, don’t require threat assessments by law, but encourage them through training and guidance.

Since Parkland, the federal government has enthusiastically pushed adoption of threat assessments through reports, legislation and resources: the U.S. Secret Service’s Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model, the federal STOP School Violence Act of 2018, the Federal Commission on School Safety Report, the federal funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Education’s informational resources and trainings

Due to these federal and state developments, threat assessments are spreading like wildfire—and starting to burn children like Jamari.

Here’s the problem: threat assessments are likely to target kids who aren’t actual threats—including disproportionate numbers of children of color and children with disabilities—and cause them significant and lasting harm, without doing anything to increase safety for schools. 

Multiple Threats of Threat Assessments

Threat assessments can go awry in five major ways:

  • Inappropriate triggers.
  • Procedural flaws.
  • Unjust consequences for students.
  • Racial and disability disparities in application.
  • Violations of student privacy.

Unfortunately, threat assessments can be triggered by unreliable, anonymously reported “threats,” that may be subject to interpretation or lack any factual basis. Threat assessments can also be triggered by normal child behavior—an attempt at humor, or acting out in temporary frustration---that poses no sustained threat of substantial harm with a defined target, timing, means and motive.

It’s also important to note that threat assessments can be triggered simply by profiling a student due to demographics, personal characteristics, or history of delinquency or other problems. Although the U.S. Secret Service report found student profiling to be ineffective, it still happens.

Even if a threat assessment is appropriately triggered, the process of conducting it can involve inappropriate processes, including ignoring basic investigation and evidence-gathering techniques. Threat assessments also typically ignore the basics of legally-required due process and requirements of special education law. They usually lack any external or third-party review. Procedural problems like these can result in sloppy investigations and false positives that leave students and families with little recourse to fight back.

Once a threat assessment is conducted, it can have inappropriate consequences, including labeling a student as dangerous and stigmatizing them among school personnel. In fact, nascent research suggests merely going through the threat assessment process causes trauma to the child.

Threat assessments can also lead to inappropriate school disciplinary action, inappropriate arrest or referral to law enforcement. And there can be major disparities for children with disabilities and children of color. These consequences can create new disciplinary or law-enforcement records with no time limit or opportunity to purge those records. Further, threat assessments can impact whole families by affecting immigration, custody, public benefits and child protective services for parents, siblings and other family members.

It’s important to note that, typically, no data is reported regarding schools’ threat assessments. All of that, together, makes for a “star chamber” process with information flowing in, little or no transparency, and little or no accountability.

While threat assessments may purport to be based on getting a child needed supports, this explanation rings hollow. Schools can use more appropriate processes to offer student supports, with less risk of harm. That’s why we have Child Find and resulting requirements for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—perhaps some resources being used for threat assessments could be directed towards funding shortfalls in IDEA.

What can you do?

Threat assessments have been “sold” as the chicken soup of school shootings—as was the case with the sale of opioids: “they can’t hurt, and they should help.” However, once people like you and me start raising concerns about the risks of threat assessments, they could follow the trajectory of opioids—initially seen as addressing an important need, but with downsides of widespread use far outweighing the upsides. 

I encourage parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers to take action and raise warning flags to slow down the threat assessment freight train, when a threat assessment effort is starting or continuing in your school, district or state. On opioids, it was a full-blown human health catastrophe before it began to be curbed; let’s not wait that long on threat assessments.

Miriam Rollin
Miriam A. Rollin, J.D. directs the national Education Civil Rights Alliance and serves as an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

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