How are kids who make school threats getting the help they need?

Most school threats are not credible, but every one of them is disruptive.

This week, the Florida Department of Education published its discipline data for the 2018-2019 school year. In Lee County, most school threats fall under the “disruption on campus” category, the school district reported 346 disruptions that year. Every one of them was reported to law enforcement.

The discipline data also shows 350 incidents of “threat/intimidation” in Lee County for that school year, 39 of which were reported to law enforcement. According to an email from FDOE:

“Threat/Intimidation is a more localized or targeted threat (focusing on a person or persons), whereas Disruption on Campus-Major is broader, such as a threat toward the campus or a larger group/population on the campus. Definitions can be found here: http://www.fldoe.org/safe-schools/sesir-discipline-data/.”

When WINK News first brought up the question of what happens to kids who make school threats, both Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno and State Attorney Amira Fox declined our request for interviews.

MORE: Threats against schools: What happens after students get arrested?

Threats of school violence often disrupt an entire school and can strike fear into students, parents and the whole community, and the Lee County School District’s Director of Safety and Security Rick Parfitt explained that every situation can warrant a different result.

“Not every kid that utters a threat or writes a threat is arrested,” Parfitt said.

Parfitt says that call is up to law enforcement, since writing a threat is considered a second-degree felony. When it comes to discipline at school, the plan isn’t one size fits all.

In its student code of conduct, the district ranks different bad behaviors and the appropriate form of discipline from levels one to three.

In an email, Spokesperson Rob Spicker explained what happens at the school level when a student makes a threat:

“Our investigation defers all legal and arrest decisions to law enforcement, but usually runs in conjunction with their efforts.

“In most cases, a threat is considered a Disruption on Campus when it comes to discipline. That’s because it disrupts the entire school. The SRO is involved, detectives get called, school administrators are devoting their time and energy to the investigation, students could be pulled for interviews so classes get interrupted, parents of involved students have to be notified […]

“Disruption can either be a Level 2 or Level 3 behavior.”

At level 2, corrective actions for a can be anything from counseling or community service to detention or suspension, or a combination. In most serious cases, level 3, students can be transferred to Success Academy, the district’s alternative school.

Parfitt said that school is meant to offer even more help to students.

“We have more social workers, more counselors that are assigned to those schools. So the students that are sent there have kind of an intensive program that they have to follow to be successful to get out of those programs.” Parfitt said. “They’re much more structured, they are much more secure.”

Parfitt says the corrective options they choose depend on the credibility and severity of the threat the student makes, their disciplinary history, and their development.

“I think it comes down to whether a kid makes a threat or whether they pose a threat,” Parfitt said.

That is analyzed by the school’s threat assessment teams, made up of a school administrator, school counselor, school psychologist, security specialist, and school resource officer. Parfitt said if the student’s conduct is of immediate concern or a potentially dangerous situation, the team can take action immediately. It involves identifying areas of concern in all parts of the student’s life, both at home and at school, and the impacts that has on their social interactions and behavior.

The big question remains: are students getting help and improving? Parfitt says based on what he has observed, the answer is yes.

Yet, there are always ways the schools can improve.

“We’re not going to stop all violence in schools, just like we can’t stop all violence on the street or in homes and things like that,” Parfitt said. “But we can do a better job of identifying when people are in crisis, we can do a better job at identifying when people are – what we call in the threat assessment world – on a pathway to violence.”

He also admits that outside factors like kids’ mug shots posted online by law enforcement can make matters worse.

“Because these are things that will never go away,” Parfitt said. “These pictures are out there, their friends see them, their families see them. They get labeled at an early age. So I think in a lot of cases it’s more harmful.”

Ultimately, it’s a combination of the actions taken by the district, law enforcement and parents that decide how and whether the student improves.

“The hard-core approach is not always the best approach,” Parfitt said. “It may be worse, it may make us less safe.”

As for progress made this school year, spokesperson Rob Spicker wrote in an email:

“We did not have a single school report a school-related threat for the entire week of the Parkland shooting’s second anniversary. We also saw in the first semester, our total number of disruptions on campus fell back to a level consistent with pre-Parkland statistics.”

Reporter:Sara Girard
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