If a student in a Baltimore school turns to another and makes a vague but potentially threatening comment such as, “I will drag you,” that could soon trigger a formal assessment to determine whether anyone is in danger and what steps might need to be taken to keep everyone safe.
The district is among a growing group of school systems across the country that are implementing formal procedures for how officials should respond to direct and indirect threats made against students or teachers. Pioneered by the U.S. Secret Service, the strategy is being embraced by school officials statewide trying to make sure their city won’t become the next Parkland, Sandy Hook or Columbine.
The General Assembly passed a wide-ranging school safety package last year after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, and another soon after at Great Mills High in St. Mary’s County. Among the new requirements: All Maryland schools must develop “threat assessment” policies like the one under consideration in Baltimore.
“We’re hoping this really pushes us toward preventing violent incidents in schools,” said Kate Hession, director of the Maryland Center for School Safety. “That’s the goal.”
School districts were supposed to have developed such policies by Sept. 1, but Baltimore and a few other districts still are finalizing procedures and putting proposals before their local boards. The city’s policy is expected to pass at the Nov. 12 meeting. The state education department published a model policy for systems to follow, though individual districts are free to adapt it to suit their needs.
Under Baltimore’s proposed regulations, schools would assemble teams — composed of people like the principal and school social worker — to determine whether a threat made against someone is serious and what should be done about it.
Was that “I will drag you” comment — a phrase common on social media — a joke? Then perhaps the student needs to be taught about the appropriate way to talk in school. Did the student who said it really intend to cause harm? If so, then maybe anger management or some other kind of intervention is necessary.
The threat assessment team will review the flagged behavior, consult a student’s prior records or conduct interviews to understand the context in which the “threat” was made and determine next steps. And if there’s an imminent threat, police and mental health clinicians would be brought in.
Baltimore County approved its threat assessment policy in July and already has gone through the process this school year, though officials there don’t yet have data on the work. Other districts in the region also are assembling and training their teams.
“We’ve had more questions from schools about what they should be looking at,” said April Lewis, Baltimore County schools’ director of school safety. “The policy has increased awareness and has people more focused on the behaviors they should be asking questions about.”
The Secret Service has long used this kind of strategy to protect elected officials, and after a series of school shootings, they partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to study how threat assessments could be adapted for schools.
In a joint 2002 report, the agencies determined that targeted violence in schools is “rarely impulsive,” and the students who carried out such attacks usually showed behavior that could tip others off that it was coming.
“These findings,” the report stated, “suggest that it may be possible to prevent some future school attacks from occurring — and that efforts to identify, assess, and manage students who may have the intent and capacity to launch an attack may be a promising strategy for prevention.”
“We need to be able to communicate that this is a process to keep you safe, not a process to penalize you. This is a resource-based policy, not a punitive one.”
James Torrence, Baltimore school system
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In 2013, after the Sandy Hook shooting, Virginia became the first state to require the use of threat assessment teams in every public school. A handful of other states have since followed, including Texas and Florida.
The University of Virginia studied the state’s threat assessment program in the 2014-15 school year, and found the vast majority of cases were not determined to be serious. Schools notified parents in 82% of cases, warned about the consequences of carrying out the threat in 70% of cases and increased student monitoring in just over half of cases. In about two-thirds of situations, the threat was resolved with the student giving an explanation or apology.
Across that state’s public schools, threat assessment teams responded to 2,883 student threats. In the sample of cases studied, 99% were solved without violence. The remaining 1% involved a fight or assault, but no serious injuries.
“The vast majority of students received disciplinary consequences and support services that permitted them to return to school,” according to the university study.
District officials said during Tuesday’s school board meeting that the point of the policy isn’t punitive, but rather to keep everyone safe and connect kids to counseling and other services that could help them.
“We need to be able to communicate that this is a process to keep you safe, not a process to penalize you," said James Torrence, staff specialist for strategy and compliance with Baltimore schools. "This is a resource-based policy, not a punitive one.”
Still, parents say they have questions about how this will be implemented and what affect it will have on their child’s day-to-day life.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get this right,” said Joe Kane, who sits on the city schools’ Parent and Community Advisory Board.
The district also will create an oversight team with officials from a variety of offices, including the chief of school police and executive director of special education.
The inclusion of someone who specializes in serving students with disabilities is key, Torrence said.
In Virginia, students receiving special education services accounted for 35% of threat cases, despite being only 12% of the population. There is some concern that behaviors associated with certain disabilities trigger threat assessments, even if the child had not actually threatened anyone.
Robert Berlow, a senior attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said it’s vital to ensure kids with disabilities are protected from being disproportionately targeted.
“We want to make sure kids’ privacy rights are protected, that their due process rights are protected,” he said.
Torrence said the district implemented the group’s feedback on the policy.