In the aftermath of a tragedy like a school shooting, one of the first things people try to figure out is what can be done to prevent another such tragedy. That routine happened again following two prominent school shootings this year. The shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 left seventeen people dead. On May 18, ten people were killed at Santa Fe High School in Texas. At the end of May, Governor Greg Abbott published a “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan” and lawmakers, including the Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security, began hearings to address school violence. Meanwhile, many Texas schools responded to the issue of school violence by simply arresting more of their students, according to a report by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit for social and economic justice.
The report, titled “Collateral Consequences, The Increase in Texas Student Arrests Following the Parkland and Santa Fe Tragedies,” documents a sharp increase in the number of referrals to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for students charged with either “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of a firearm.” From 2017 to 2018, referrals for terroristic threats increased by 156 percent, the report concluded. And there was a 600 percent increase of referrals for exhibition of firearms (a majority of which, 66 percent, did not actually include possession of a firearm). It may seem that these schools are being proactive in following up on potential safety threats, but Deborah Fowler, the executive director of Texas Appleseed, says that schools are falling back on a zero-tolerance approach to addressing school violence, an approach that doesn’t accurately assess threat levels and that research has proven ineffective in keeping schools safe. Examples of arrests made in the report exemplify the disproportionate response of zero-tolerance policies, such as a 17-year-old student who was taken to jail for pulling a school fire alarm and a 12-year-old student with a disability who was arrested for pointing a finger gun at imaginary creatures in an empty hallway. In another incident, a 15-year-old was arrested for making a terroristic threat after a teacher asked him to remove his backpack and he joked, “It’s not like it’s going to blow up.”
“The understandable fears that school officials are expressing and acting on in the wake of Parkland and Santa Fe tragedies are hitting our youngest, most vulnerable students the hardest,” Fowler says, noting that the surge in referrals is highest among ten- to thirteen-year-olds. “I think it also raises a flag simply because we know that the younger a child is, the less mature, the more impulsive they may be.”
Texas Appleseed compared information from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department from all of 2016 and 2017—and January to May of 2018. In 2016, there were a total of 437 referrals for terroristic threats. That number went up slightly to 473 in 2017. But in 2018, the number of referrals made over five months was 1,212, the report said. There was an even higher jump in referrals for exhibition of a firearm, a charge Fowler says the organization hasn’t heard much about in the past. In 2016, charges for exhibition of a firearm totaled 26, and they went up to 37 in 2017. But this year, those numbers jumped to 259. The 2018 increase for both criminal charges begins in February, after the Parkland shooting.
“We doubt that that’s because there has been a significant change in student behavior,” Fowler says. “So there’s something about the way that the adults are responding to it that’s changed.”
Part of that is reflected in the way students of color are treated, says Morgan Craven, the director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline project at Texas Appleseed. While black students represent just 13 percent of the overall student body population in Texas, they accounted for 24 percent of the referrals for terroristic threats and 31 percent of referrals for exhibition of firearms in 2018. The actions of black students, who Craven says are behaving no differently than other students, are perceived more harshly. So the determining factor is how school administrators are interpreting and responding to those student actions. The report also states that students with disabilities can be “vulnerable to being targeted for terroristic threat arrests.” Part of the challenge is interpreting and understanding behavior in the context of their disabilities. In one incident a 12-year-old student with autism was arrested after aiming an imaginary rifle at his art teacher. His family says that the school district later required him to attend an alternative school for the rest of the semester.
Craven also raises concerns about how interacting with the juvenile justice system can be traumatizing for students. The process of being removed from school by law enforcement, processed, and detained can stigmatize a student, isolate him or her from classmates, and sow distrust in the school system. Such an experience can be detrimental to a student’s future—they suffer academically and their likelihood of dropping out of school increases. These referrals can carry lifelong consequences for students, too. Terroristic threats and exhibition of a firearm can lead to felony charges and, in Texas, students who are seventeen years old and older go through the adult criminal justice system. In the case of the fifteen-year-old arrested for making a terroristic threat, the Texas Tribune reports that he missed two weeks of school and failed a standardized test necessary for graduation.
Rather than schools falling back on zero-tolerance policies, Craven recommends a number of alternatives to enhance school safety, such as the Schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SW PBIS); Social-Emotional Learning (SEL); and Restorative Discipline. They are programs that emphasize asking the right questions to address the issues surrounding a situation rather than excluding students. The report mentions another alternative known as research-based threat assessment model, which is designed by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education to help schools determine when a student may need counseling versus when law enforcement needs to be involved.
“It’s all about creating those strong relationships, keeping students in the classroom, when that’s appropriate to do—and that’s the majority of cases—so that they’re actually getting what they need,” Craven says. “They’re learning what expectations are and if what they have done is something sort of silly or something that is actually age-appropriate for a child in response to feelings like fear or anxiety or response to nervousness or making a silly joke. It’s guiding them and letting them know that that’s not the appropriate behavior.”
Craven says that schools tend to fall back on zero-tolerance policies when they aren’t equipped with proper training on appropriate responses. One of the obstacles schools face is funding. At a recent hearing by the Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security that Craven attended, the Texas Tribune reported that school funding for support staff such as counselors was a point of discussion. Funding can be an issue for school districts, but Craven says awareness can also be a roadblock. Many schools might not know that regional education service centers usually have resources available for the research-based alternatives, such as SW PBIS and Restorative practices.
The necessary culture shift of school districts wanting to access resources and change their school environment is already taking place in some districts, like Austin’s, which has adopted the SEL model and was recently awarded a $3.5 million grant to implement restorative practices. But sometimes a culture shift requires knowledge of the effects of zero-tolerance policies as well as what other options are available. That’s where Fowler hopes that reports like “Collateral Consequences” can come in.
“We want schools to have access to this information now, to know that there are alternative tools that work better,” Fowler says. “So that when the school year starts in September, they may have had the opportunity to think through different approaches.”