After Michigan Shooting, Democrats Weigh Competing Approaches to School Safety

Originally published in The Intercept on December 3, 2021.
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ON TUESDAY, in a suburb of Detroit, a 15-year-old boy brought his father’s semi-automatic handgun to school and shot 11 fellow students, killing at least four. It was the latest example of a problem that has become endemic in the United States: According to NBC News’s school shooting tracker, it was the third school shooting this year; the 14th since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and at least the 46th since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

As pressure mounts again for action and advocates face familiar opposition from Republicans to gun control, a quieter battle has been brewing between groups on the Democratic side of the aisle, some of which support measures that could increase the role of law enforcement in schools, while others say we need greater focus on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Both camps include parent groups, pitting the parents of school shooting victims against those who have seen their children undergo the harms of chronic overpolicing.

One group of grieving parents has become something of a legislative powerhouse. Organizing under the banner of Stand With Parkland and representing parents of the shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, they have successfully pushed for a number of policy changes to school safety both in Florida and nationwide, including a bill to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and a bill to fund investments in school security training.

On the heels of these victories, the Parkland parents have turned their attention to several other pieces of legislation winding their way through Congress, holding more than a dozen meetings with lawmakers in Washington last month. These include the Luke and Alex School Safety Act (named for two of the students who died in the Parkland massacre), or LASSA, which would codify a federal clearinghouse to outline school security recommendations, and the EAGLES Act (named for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school mascot), which would establish a new program focused on violence prevention in schools at the National Threat Assessment Center, a division of the U.S. Secret Service.

While Stand With Parkland hails both LASSA and the EAGLES Act as critical, proactive safety measures, coalitions of hundreds of civil rights, disability rights, and privacy groups have been working hard to stop those bills from becoming law. In a series of letters sent to Congress over the past year, advocates have criticized the bills for entrenching school safety with law enforcement and for their embrace of threat assessment, a violence prevention strategy pioneered by the Secret Service to protect the president and other public officials.

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In an October letter, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents more than 220 national groups, wrote to lawmakers that “Relying on threat assessment systems, as outlined in the EAGLES Act, would be misguided, detrimental, and wasteful.”

Stand With Parkland parents are familiar with the legislative objections raised by civil rights advocates, but they have not engaged with these critics directly. “We have not met with those coalitions, but we are aware of the concerns,” said Tony Montalto, the group’s president, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting. “The idea of identifying someone in crisis or in need is to connect them with the resources they need. It’s not designed to punish, it’s not designed to incarcerate, but to proactively offer students individualized support before they turn to violence.”

One academic researcher and threat assessment proponent went so far as to compare the civil rights groups to anti-vaccine advocates, saying that their objections “are causing harm to many children by undermining a safe and effective practice that protects them.”

IN 2019, Jamari Nelson, a Black first grader with autism, was subjected to a threat assessment that civil rights leaders nationwide now point to as a prime example of how these evaluations can go wrong, especially for students with disabilities. The 7-year-old was temporarily barred from school and assessed after a classroom incident that culminated in Nelson hitting a teacher on the head with a whiteboard. His report indicated that he was “extremely manipulative” and “distrustful” and displayed an “alternate identity” as a force to be reckoned with. Nelson’s mother pulled him out of school following the experience, which was detailed in a shocking investigation in Searchlight New Mexico.

In a school setting, threat assessments generally involve teams that include a mental health professional, an administrator, and school or local police to evaluate potential student threats and propose interventions. The teams deem potential threats either “transient,” meaning that they do not involve serious intent to cause harm, or “substantive,” meaning that they do. The two designations trigger different responses, with the former typically entailing a quicker and ideally less punitive resolution than the latter.

In a report published this spring, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center analyzed 67 disrupted plots against K-12 schools between 2006 and 2018 and concluded that threat assessment is the “best practice” to prevent school shootings. While the report acknowledged that many of the disrupted plots had been stopped using arrests and criminal charges, the authors urged intervention before a criminal investigation becomes necessary, using tactics like connecting students with social services, adult monitoring, and conflict resolution support.

Civil rights groups say that the Secret Service overestimates its ability to prevent shootings, as the agency flags as risk factors conditions that apply to millions of students — like receiving mental health treatment, having a history of substance abuse, and being bullied. And while the Secret Service concluded that school-based police play an important role in preventing school shootings, other research has found that school police do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents. They do, however, increase suspensions, expulsions, and student arrests.

Threat assessment skeptics like Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, say that the model is often framed as the “chicken soup” of school shootings — meaning that it can’t hurt and should help — but in practice, it gets implemented in ways that harm students like Nelson. Civil rights groups also believe that threat assessments undermine existing programs like “Child Find,” a program implemented under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that helps connect students with mental health services.

“We absolutely oppose the use of threat assessment,” Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told The Intercept. “It is not possible to implement it in a way that has a positive effect on students.”

The policies promoted by Stand With Parkland aren’t the only measures that support the use of threat assessments making their way through Congress. An additional such bill called the Behavioral Intervention Guidelines, or BIG, Act was passed by the House in May, though Stand With Parkland has not formally endorsed it.

The BIG Act would task the federal departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Homeland Security with developing crisis intervention plans for students with mental illnesses who have been deemed threatening. In a June letter opposing the legislation, the Coalition for Smart Safety wrote: “We are fundamentally opposed to the notion that behavioral interventions in schools begin with the assumption that the student is a threat and that a threat must be mitigated. … Students of color are over policed and disproportionately disciplined in schools and we should curb this problem rather than further entrenching ineffective and discriminatory systems.”

Both parents of school shooting victims and civil rights groups are pressing lawmakers for more school-based mental health services, but the bills each camp is pushing approach the issue very differently.

“We’re not identifying [students] as a problem, we’re identifying the problems that they are experiencing or are feelings and making sure that they are getting the help that they need,” said April Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen, 16, was also murdered in the Parkland shooting. Stand With Parkland is pushing for the Mental Health in Schools Excellence Program Act, a bill led by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., to increase recruitment and retention of school-based counselors. Civil rights groups, in turn, are rallying behind the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, which would ban the use of federal funds for police in schools and establish a new grant program to hire more counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.

DEWEY CORNELL, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and the country’s leading advocate for school-based threat assessments, has published an array of studies cited by supporters of LASSA, the EAGLES Act, and the BIG Act. He first became interested in school violence while working at a hospital in 1983, after evaluating a 16-year-old boy who murdered a 14-year-old girl. “He was depressed over the breakup of his parents’ marriage and angry at the girl for teasing him and calling him ‘pizza face’ because of his acne,” Cornell told Virginia Magazine. “I thought about this case and how little we understood the causes and determinants of violent behavior.”

Cornell’s data suggests schools that used threat assessment were less likely to use other exclusionary school discipline practices and that racial disparities among those who are suspended or expelled were also reduced. In one randomized controlled trial he led, schools using threat assessment suspended Black and white students at equal rates, whereas schools without threat assessments suspended Black students at a higher rate than their white peers.

“Threat assessment essentially protects students of color as well as students in special education from disproportionate discipline,” Cornell told The Intercept.

Civil rights advocates argue that Cornell’s focus on threat assessment outcomes downplays the trauma that those who are referred to be assessed experience. For example, students with disabilities were referred to be evaluated at nearly four times the rate as the general student population, according to Cornell’s own data. He insists that such referral disparities “should not be alarming,” noting that students of color and students with disabilities are already disciplined at far higher rates than other students — irrespective of threat assessment. In other words, he argues, if threat assessment results in less punitive discipline policies for those groups of students and instead provides them with mental health and social services, that’s a good thing.

Rollin, of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, argues that Cornell’s research conflates students who received referrals for services with those who actually received them, stressing that there has never been enough support available for students with disabilities. Diane Smith Howard of the National Disability Rights Network agrees, calling this process “referrals to nowhere.”

Cornell considers this critique “a bogus argument that just tries to raise the bar high enough to discount our findings.” He also dismissed the example of Jamari Nelson, saying that “from a scientific perspective, anecdotal evidence is not evidence, no matter how dramatic or compelling it is.”

CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES have been scrambling over the last few weeks since they heard that LASSA could be introduced as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass piece of legislation still being debated in the Senate. In July, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., moved the bill out of his Homeland Security Committee to the full Senate, but Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., put a hold on it after communicating with civil rights groups.

“LASSA supporters are now looking for another way to bypass the hold, and since they couldn’t do it with reconciliation, we think they might try with NDAA,” Dara Baldwin, director of national policy for the Center for Disability Rights, told The Intercept. “Their No. 1 goal is to get it passed in the Senate this year, which will make it easier to get it over the finish line in 2022, especially if Republicans retake the House.” Civil rights groups have been ramping up pressure on Democratic leadership to oppose any such amendment. Murphy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Education Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., did not return requests for comment.

Baldwin said that her coalition is particularly frustrated with Peters for moving LASSA forward, seeing it as a slap in the face to the Black voters who helped Democrats win Michigan in 2020. A committee aide for Peters told The Intercept that while the senator has not co-sponsored the bill, he agreed to move it forward “with the understanding that it would need more work — including work with other committees — to address many of the concerns that have been raised by key stakeholders before it can be considered by the full Senate.” The aide did not respond to follow-up inquiries about how passing the bill as an NDAA amendment would undermine opportunities for further work.

Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., one of three original co-sponsors of the bill, declined to say whether her boss plans to introduce LASSA as an NDAA amendment. “Criticism of [LASSA] is misguided,” she told The Intercept. “It’s unfortunate anyone would want to prevent schools, teachers, and parents from knowing what resources are available to help protect their students.”

King, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the political momentum around the threat assessment bills is a result of lawmakers refusing to take real action on gun control yet still feeling urgent pressure to respond to mass shootings.

After the Parkland shooting, 19 states adopted so-called red flag laws, which provide police or family members ways to prevent gun purchases and possession by those deemed a threat, and Parkland parents are still pushing for a federal bill that would incentivize more states to follow suit. But momentum, particularly among state Republican leaders, has since fizzled out. Seemingly incapable of preventing violence, governments are often left in a reactive position, as in the case of Tuesday’s shooting outside Detroit, where the 15-year-old suspect could now face life in prison on charges of murder and terrorism.

“It’s a dangerous cocktail of debate framed in ways that refuse to engage in any remedy that is not criminalizing,” King said. “From our perspective, we need action now, we need action yesterday, but we are in a situation where one side is unwilling to do anything to address the underlying problem about the easy availability of guns.”

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