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Why is TESD calling the police to report on children?

By Maggie Gaines, co-leader of BUILD T/E, parent of a child in the district and resident of Tredyffrin Township in Wayne, PA NOTE: the meeting airs tonight at 7 pm - click here.

I want to thank the school board for their work to improve policy and regulation 5401. As we all may recall this latest revision of the policy and regulations started with an incident involving my 6-year old daughter, who is a kindergarten student at Valley Forge Elementary School.

To refresh your memory, my daughter who has Down syndrome, in November pointed her finger at her special education teacher to express frustration with being asked to make a transition. The teacher referred the incident to the principal. A threat assessment team was convened and in spite of the team deeming the comment a “transient threat,” the district administration said they were required as per school district policy to call the police for a “consultation” regarding the incident. An incident report was generated by the Tredyffrin Police Department and will be kept indefinitely in their records.

Before I get into my comments regarding the revisions that were made to the policy, I first want to mention that no one from the District has reached out out to my husband or me to apologize for how the incident was handled with our daughter or to acknowledge that they overreacted or erred in any way. It seems clear from the action that’s already been taken in revising this policy and regulation that the School Board and the administration acknowledge that calling the police for a remark made by a 6-year old kindergartner was not warranted.

Link to TESD Policy Meeting in Progress

Also, I want the board to know that our attorney sent a letter to the District on January 28, 2020 requesting a change to the policy. The letter also asked the district to expunge my daughter’s school record, as well as, initiate a process to expunge the recorded incident at the police station. The District has not even bothered to answer that letter.

I recognize that our country is currently in a national public health crisis, and that our school officials are dealing with many issues at the moment. But I am disappointed and annoyed that the District has yet to acknowledge the distress and harm it has caused my daughter and our family over these past months. And as far as I am aware, they have taken no actions to right the wrong for my daughter.

Now, onto the substance of the revision. My husband Mark and I both appreciate the work you all have done in trying to improve this policy and regulation. The biggest improvement is that the policy and regulation no longer requires that police be notified for every threat assessment meeting. Instead, building administrators have discretion to “consult” with policy when they are unable to determine whether a threat is substantive or transient.

This is an improvement, for sure. But we still have concerns. First, I want everyone to be clear that the so-called “consultation” with police is not really a consultation. The district shares information about students, but police do not share information with the school. So I want us to be really clear that the “sharing of information” is really a one-way relaying of information from the school to police.

If the school district was serious about having a true consultation and collaborative relationship with police, they’d establish an informal process, as Dr. Dewey Cornell suggested to me when I spoke to him in February. In such a scenario, Dr. Cornell suggested the district could meet with police on a regular basis to talk broadly about the trends each is seeing in the school and community.

But again to be clear, calling police for individual incidents and expecting the police to divulge private information of a minor to determine how the school classifies a threatening statement or act is unrealistic. Furthermore, the current approach where police are simply informed about situations involving students is not benign. It could have dangerous consequences for our students, whose information is being collected and warehoused at our local police departments.

Harold Jordan, a senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who serves on the threat assessment advisory group established by the Pennsylvania 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.

I am concerned that the amended regulations as proposed do not include these protections for our students. There is no language in the policy or regulation that limits the threat assessment process to potentially credible threats. In other words, threat assessment teams should not even be meeting for situations like the one involving my kindergarten daughter who pointed her finger at her teacher and said, “I shoot you.” Not only was this not a potentially credible threat, but it was quickly determined even before the threat assessment team had met that she did not understand what she was saying.

I suspect that the majority of the 35 incidents in which threat assessment teams were called this school year were similar in that they were likely not threats at all.

I also believe that if the school made available demographic information about the 35 incidents that we would also see a disparity, especially among students with disabilities, who have been referred to threat assessment meetings.

Thank you again for your work to revise this policy and for considering our input.

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