The Washington state legislature is taking up a number of bills this session to address what is globally referred to as “school safety” issues. In large part, this is motivated by the now regularly-occurring school shootings that dominate the news every 6 months or so.
In an effort to improve school safety and prevent tragedies, sponsoring legislators have drafted a variety of bills related to funding and providing more school resource officers (SROs) if a district wants them, imposing training requirements on SROs, increasing the amount of funding for counselors and other student supports, promoting some form of guidance for conducting “threat assessments” when a behavioral threat is brought to a school’s attention, and increased sharing of information between law enforcement and schools.
Cedar Law was approached by the ACLU to speak about how we have seen schools identify and address perceived threats. One of our partners, Chris Williams, testified:
“I ask you to keep in the front of your minds that there is very little legal representation or advocacy for the average student. So, there is a need for guidance in this area because I’ve seen situations where threat assessments have been misused and where they were critically needed but never utilized at all.”
Chris spoke to the highly-negative consequences children experience when they are erroneously identified as threats but later found out not to be:
“I have clients who have experienced arrest, been expelled, been forced into alternative schools, had their graduations delayed, been not allowed to walk at graduation, and lost all of their friends even though they never did what they were accused of.”
Because of the large number of stakeholders, each speaker was allotted one minute. You can see Chris’s testimony here.
There are a number of bills being debated and many of the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee members stated that they were amenable to consolidating or revising the best parts of each of them at this stage of the drafting. Everyone can agree that schools should be safe, but there are wide differences of opinion on how to accomplish that. Far more students get in trouble for jokes made in poor taste or misunderstandings than are actually a threat.
While every effort should be made to prevent school shootings and other such tragedies, the same effort must be made to ensure due process protections are utilized to prevent false accusations against students who pose no risk at all.
Misuse of threat assessments and inaccurate identification of “threats” disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. The use of law enforcement in schools also has negative consequences for many students. Notably, Senator Wellman emphasized that the current bills allow local control over the involvement of law enforcement so that communities could decide which side of that debate they would like to land on.
Unnecessary collaboration between law enforcement and schools can, at times, contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Incentives for schools to share with law enforcement can create a “pass the buck” mentality by which hurried school administrators see the path of least resistance for dealing with a threat as letting law enforcement arrest and investigate first.
This is not always necessary and can lead to life-long consequences for the child without any public safety benefit.
Those who are interested should review the text of the various bills from the 2019-2020 session and reach out to their state legislators to provide feedback: