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Outcome of the Student Discipline Policy & Threat Assessment

Student Discipline Policy 5401 Update

Student Discipline Policy 5401 Update

The TESD Policy committee has been working on updates to its discipline policy and regulation 5401, which deals with the issue of “threat assessment.” The Policy Committee has discussed proposed changes at the past two committee meetings, and is preparing to vote on the final language of the revision in the coming weeks. 

BUILD is appreciative of the school board and administration for agreeing to revise the policy and appreciates the work done to improve the policy.  We still have a concern around the “police consult” which is now described in the Regulation, and we are concerned that threat assessment described by this Policy and Regulation are disproportionately administered to students with IEPs. 

As many of you may recall, the policy update follows an incident the Gaines family brought to the school board’s attention in late January, regarding their daughter Margot, a 6-year old kindergarten student at Valley Forge Elementary school.  

Margot, a special education student with Down syndrome, allegedly threatened her teacher by pointing her finger like a gun and saying “I shoot you.” Even though the school’s principal and threat assessment team quickly determined that Margot didn’t understand what she was saying or doing, administrators insisted they still needed to call police for a “consultation” as part of the TESD School Board’s threat assessment policy.

The TESD Policy committee appears to have acknowledged this was not the intent of the threat assessment process. And it agreed to revisit the policy to clarify. In order to make the process for threat assessment more clear and easier for administrators to follow, the board agreed to move discussion of “police consultation” to the regulation. Changes to the regulation were discussed on April 1 at the policy committee meeting. 

Here’s a quick summary of the proposed changes:

  • The revised regulation will no longer require threat assessment teams to call police for “consultation” whenever a threat assessment occurs. If the school-based threat assessment team determines the threat is “transient,” which means a comment or action made out of frustration with no intent to harm, police will not be “consulted.”

  • If a threat is considered “substantive,” meaning that the school threat assessment team determines that a student may act on a threat, police will be notified and consulted. And if the threat is “very serious” and there is concern that students or staff could be in imminent danger, further police action should be requested.

  • If the school-based threat assessment team can’t determine if a threat is “transient” or “substantive” the proposed regulation gives the team the option to call police for a “consultation” to see if law enforcement has additional information that may help them determine how to classify the threat, which again is supposed to determine the intent of the student’s threat and the severity of the threat.

  • The revision also includes language that would require at least one member of an IEP team other than the school’s principal to participate in any threat assessment team meeting involving a student with an IEP. It also requires that relevant parts of a student’s IEP be made available to the threat assessment team. 

BUILD’s take on the revision:

As advocates for students in our district with IEPs, we are still concerned about the District’s revision to the regulation and it’s continued use in any capacity of the term “police consultation.” 

We are concerned that our students with disabilities are likely being overly represented in these threat assessments. We would also like the district to be more transparent about which students are being referred for threat assessment. This can easily be accomplished with anonymized disaggregated reporting, some of which is reported each year to Pennsylvania Dept. of Education.

Police Consultation

While the District’s revision of the regulation is an improvement over the previous policy, because it will no longer require calls to police for every threat assessment, the use of this option at all to help determine the intent of a student’s threat is inappropriate and dangerous. 

The District has stated that the intent of the “police consultation” simply allows for the sharing of information between police and school. But in practice it is an investigative tool in which the school seeks information about a particular student from law enforcement. Because there is no formal agreement between our local police departments and the district on how to treat these “consultations,” the police generate incident reports when schools call for “consultations,” creating a record for each child in police department databases that cannot be erased and could be accessed in the future. 

The District claims that offering “law enforcement consultation” is part of the nationally recognized threat assessment model developed by Dr. Dewey Cornell, a researcher at University of Virginia. 

What the District has neglected to acknowledge is that consultation with law enforcement as described by Dr. Cornell is recommended for schools that employ school safety officers. In that context, school safety officers participate as members of the threat assessment team within schools. It’s assumed that these officers have a connection with students, much like other staff in the school, such as teachers, counselors or coaches, to offer a different perspective on a student or situation. 

TESD’s use of the police consultation is not what is described above. TESD does not employ school safety officers. And no member of our two local police departments participates in a school threat assessment team to fill that role. Instead, police are contacted after a threat assessment meets. The officer who participates in the “consultation” is determined by who the police dispatcher connects the school with to take the “incident report.” In other words, it is not an officer who likely has any personal knowledge of or contact with a particular student or the school community.  The only input the school seeks from this consultation is whether police have information about a student outside of school. 

Even if police had information or knowledge of a student’s activity outside of school, it’s unclear whether they’d be able to share it with the school, given privacy laws restricting the sharing of information about children under 18 years of age. 

One thing is clear about this exchange: The school’s call to the police department generates an incident report, which documents the incident as well as a student’s personal information. 

As leaders of BUILD, we do not believe that any sharing of student information or record keeping by law enforcement is safe or appropriate for students who have neither been charged nor suspected of any crime. The District regulations already require the involvement of law enforcement when a student is suspected of criminal activity, as required by law. And the District’s threat assessment regulations also already require the involvement of police for very serious threats that may pose an imminent risk to student or staff safety. 

Overidentification of students with disabilities with proposed threat assessment policy

BUILD is also concerned that students with disabilities aremore likelyto be referred for threat assessment than their non-disabed peers. We also worry that the District’s use of discretionary “police consultations” as part of its threat assessment process will result in a disproportionate reporting of incidents involving our students with IEPs to local law enforcement. 

Our concern is shared by civil rights and disability experts. 

Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who serves on the threat assessment advisory group established by thePennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to draft guidelines for school districts on how to implement the state law requiring every K-12 public school have a threat assessment team and process, recommended in an article he published last month that schools need to “place restrictions on what can trigger threat assessment and when to involve law enforcement.”

He noted that “students of color, students with disabilities and other vulnerable populations are being disproportionately impacted” by threat assessment policies. And that these, “disparities echo trends in school discipline and arrests in schools.” 

He worries that information collected by police through the threat assessment process could have “potentially catastrophic” consequences for students, including the insertion of this information in criminal justice databases that can be accessed by law enforcement and others in the future, as well as, the threat process being used for immigration enforcement.

He suggests that to minimize the unintended consequences, schools restrict the use of threat assessment to situations where a clear threat is communicated. He says police involvement should be limited “to emergency situations where there is an imminent threat to the school community.” I also want to note that this is also the recommendation of Dr. Cornell as per his threat assessment model. 

Jordan also recommends that schools be held accountable to their communities for how they are using threat assessments by requiring schools to be transparent about who they refer for threat assessments. He says demographic data about students’ race, disability and gender should be made public to look for patterns of inequity. 

The district administration has reported that as of March 2020 a total of 35 transient threat assessment meetings and police consults had been called district wide. BUILD has asked the district to provide statistics on how many of those cases involved students with IEPs. The District has not provided this information, and the TESD attorney indicated at the March 3 and April 1 Policy Committee meetings that divulging this information would potentially violate student privacy. It is unclear why the school cannot disclose anonymized information in a way to protect individual student privacy, given that 1,174 students in our 7,000-student district have IEPs.

In Conclusion

To sum up, we are grateful that the school board has considered the community’s concerns and input regarding Policy and Regulation 5401. And we appreciate the work that has been done to improve it. But we believe the school district should eliminate “police consultation” entirely from its threat assessment process when it comes todetermining the intentof a threat.  

We also ask the school district to regularly disclose to the school board and the public statistics on the percentage of students districtwide who are being referred for threat assessment and who are subsequently being referred for police consultations, and the percentage of those students who have IEPs.

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